About ‘Public Enemies’

It’s been some time since the early gangland days was captured on film and when I heard Christian Bale, Johnny Depp, and director Michael Mann were teaming up to tackle the John Dillinger story, I was excited. The trailers made it look like they captured the look and feel of the Depression and I was ready.

What I never expected to be was bored and fidgety during a 2.5 hour gangster movie.

By the time the credits for Public Enemies rolled, I knew a smidgen more about the characters than I did walking into the theater. Despite about two sentences on his upbringing, there’s nothing to explain why Dillinger became a bank robber and why he thought this was a lifestyle that would never change despite everyone telling him it was already over.

Similarly, we have no clue as to what made Melvin Purvis tick. He’s dedicated with a streak of humanity and Deb noticed he was wearing a wedding band but his family life and the toll his job took on them was never once mentioned.

As a result, the movie movies at varying speeds and does a rather poor job of making you care for either the hunter or the prey. About the only one you feel anything for is Billie Frechette, played by the French actress Marion Cotillard.

Mann’s hyperkinetic editing and filmmaking in the opening minutes left you confused as to who was doing what to whom, something repeated throughout the film. He never let the camera linger on the moment, letting the editor do the work for him. When he does slow down, the characters breath and its nice to watch the budding relationship between bank robber and coat check girl.

A theme that should have been played up was that as Purvis was taking down the colorful robbers of the day, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, etc. it marked the end of an era as the post-Capone mob, now led by his lieutenant Frank Nitti got smarted and built a nationwide criminal network that men like Dillinger threatened. There’s one scene that hints at something that could have been a more powerful story.

Instead, Mann made his movie much as Dillinger seems to have led his life, never planning ahead, never making specific goals and trying to achieve them. Dillinger lurched from robbery to safe house to robbery, never sheltering his cash, never figuring out what to do with it all and when to retire. Mann’s film cuts between Purvis and Dillinger but the contrast between them should have been sharper.

All in all, it’s a noble misfire that wastes a very strong and deep cast.

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