Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup,
Jason Clarke, Stephen Graham
- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Universal Pictures
Reviewed by David Medsker
ichael Mann is one of the few directors working today that is a bigger star than the people he hires to act in his movies. As in, getting Johnny Depp and Christian Bale to headline a movie about John Dillinger and the FBI agent determined to hunt him down is cool, but getting them to do it for Michael Mann is really cool. But here’s the catch: the end result isn’t nearly as cool as it looks on paper, and that has been the case for several of Mann’s recent movies. Sure, “Public Enemies” is a step up from his last directorial effort, the scattershot “Miami Vice,” but that is faint praise, to say the least. “Enemies” has a better idea and better actors at its core, but the monotonous structure of the script combined with a ridiculous running time makes it a much more laborious viewing experience than it should be.
The movie begins in 1933, and John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is having the time of his life during the Great Depression, as he and his prison buddies are free men and knocking off banks left and right. The very idea of Dillinger so upsets Bureau of Investigation chief J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) that he promotes Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who had recently taken down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum, in a five-second cameo), to head up the new Chicago office of the Bureau. Purvis puts the Bureau’s investigative techniques, both deductive and legally questionable, to work in finding Dillinger, and quickly finds a trail, but Dillinger eludes the Feds time and again (even after he’s arrested and thrown in a supposedly escape-proof jail). Eventually, Dillinger runs out of places to hide, and not even the local gangsters in his new hideout of Chicago are willing to protect him anymore.
That I made no mention of Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie Frechette (Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard) is very telling. The movie only occasionally has a use for her, and their courtship is conveniently quick and shallow. (They even make a joke about this in the dialogue, but that does not excuse its lack of development.) They also play fast and loose with the facts, if Dillinger’s Wikipedia page is to be believed, which is fine if it makes for good storytelling. However, the events here fall into a loop of ‘we just missed him’ to ‘we got him’ to ‘he just got away.’ Mann is clearly trying to deglamorize Dillinger’s life, which is commendable given his Robin Hood-like legend, but after a while, I couldn’t help but think, “Will they just kill him already?”
If there is one thing that Mann makes sure to get right in his movies, it’s the look, and “Public Enemies” is no exception. The cinematography contains some dazzling moments (the swirling fog in one scene, a bad guy’s last breath in another) and the costumes and art direction are superb. The casting, however, feels like overcompensation. Depp is a good choice for Dillinger, but Melvin Purvis didn’t need to be played by Bale. Anyone could have done that role – much like the showdown between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Mann’s “Heat,” Depp and Bale share only one scene together – and the same goes for Cotillard as Dillinger’s moll. Their performances are fine, but the acting overall is little more than an additional part of the scenery (though Billy Crudup is amusing as the ultra-paranoid J. Edgar Hoover), which does not help that 140-minute run time one bit. The climactic scene at the Biograph movie theater alone is twice as long as it needs to be.
Perhaps the biggest problem with “Public Enemies” is that in its refusal to take sides, it winds up selling both sides short. This is probably what Dillinger deserves – the man was, after all, a sociopath and a murderer – but is that what Purvis deserves? We get the subtext of the title, that the good guys were also bad guys at times, but the movie would have greatly benefited if Mann had picked his poison somewhere along the way.
Two-Disc Special Edition Review:
The two-disc DVD of "Public Enemies" is a pretty standard release. Director Michael Mann provides an audio commentary for the film, and Disc One has a 10-minute featurette on John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis. (Johnny Depp actually put on the pants Dillinger was wearing when he was killed.) Disc Two has a digital copy of the movie and four more featurettes covering the making of the film, Dillinger as the country's last outlaw, scouting out Dillinger's known hideouts, and how Dillinger had better weapons and faster cars than law enforcement. In addition to those extras, the Blu-ray release includes an exclusive picture-in-picture video track featuring more behind-the-scenes footage and an interactive timeline tracking the events in the film. They're all pleasant enough, but no one will watch them more than once.