By Dave Campbell | July 6, 2009
Director: Michael Mann
Writer(s): Ronan Bennett, Ann Biderman, Michael Mann (screenplay) Bryan Burrough (book)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Channing Tatum, Emilie de Ravin, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi, Branka Katic
Public Enemies is based on author Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-43. The film opens in the depression age of 1933 with the virtually unstoppable John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his partner John “Red” Hamilton, breaking themselves and the rest of their gang out of prison. A shootout ensues as the gang heads for the getaway car, with Dillinger’s mentor Walter Dietrich being shot down in the process.
Soon after the prison break, Dillinger meets Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), who he quickly falls for and sweeps her off her feet. Dillinger and Billie enjoy luxuries and the high life, but never in one place for too long. The American public receives Dillinger as a “modern day” Robin Hood folk hero since he is robbing the very banks they hold responsible for causing the Great Depression.
At the same time Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and a team of lawmen are bringing down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). As a result J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) promotes Purvis to lead the Bureau’s investigation and apprehension of John Dillinger as the agency transforms into the FBI. Hoover christens Dillinger the very first “Public Enemy Number One” in America’s history, unleashing Purvis to take down Dillinger’s gang by any means necessary.
After experiencing a series of failed shoot-outs and cat-and-mouse chases, Purvis soon realizes that he has underestimated Dillinger’s criminal ingenuity, and has bitten off more than he can chew. The Outwitted and outgunned FBI Agent enlists a team of Texas/Western lawmen as agents, to aide in orchestrating the end of Dillinger’s run.
Michael Mann’s Public Enemies enters this summer blockbuster season in contrast to the list of sequels and existing franchises filled with robots and massive digital effects. With an already lackluster summer so far, this period crime epic brags major star power in front and behind the camera. Depp proves yet again that he is more suave than anyone else on the planet, and Bale has awakened from the coma that McG put him in for Terminator: Salvation. Michael Mann gives us another fine example of why he should be consulted for every firefight ever filmed, and Marion Cotillard best know for her oscar winning performance in La Vie En Rose (La môme) remains spectacular on screen as always.
Dillinger (Depp) tells Billie (Cotillard), “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars…and you, What else you need to know? “. She apparently requires less than the viewing audience, because other than a few conversational references here and there, the film lacks any kind of real back story to setup the characters we are asked to be engaged in. This Depp-centric film is full of great performers and performances from Marion Cotillard, Christian Bale, and of course Johnny Depp, but several of them including Billy Crudup, Giovanni Ribisi, and Lili Taylor barely see any notable screen time.
Though Public Enemies looks great all the way through, it suffers from a dual personality in visual inconsistencies which cause various moments of distraction. Due to the use of both cinema grade HD and consumer hand held HD digital cameras, there is a back and forth from clean glossy 35mm look to digital documentary style that can not be ignored. The are also occasional dialogue based scenes where the audio flutters and is difficult to discern – mainly in scenes of largely populated rooms or nightclubs. This still doesn’t take away from the brilliantly designed sets and wardrobe that leave each member of the cast looking like a dapper relic of the past.
After sifting through my mixed thoughts about this film I read through the development history of the project. It turns out that at one time it was being geared in “HBO mini-series” fashion which probably would have better served the characters with a richer story presentation. Though Public Enemies has many things to boast about, and areas to satisfy, there are several elements that prevent it from having the weight needed to be something great.