Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Public Enemies (2009) Review

Public Enemies
A flawed portrait of a man of considerable “stature”

Sorry for the little double entendre there, but I just figured I should mention it given how Public Enemies doesn't shed light on John Dillinger’s mysterious rumored endowment. The reason I’m in this train of thought is because many critics seem to have had very high expectations for this movie that haven’t played out as they thought they would. Which is too bad, cause I know there have been many movies that I liked that were suffocated by audiences that wanted something for which it didn’t or didn’t intend to provide. Public Enemies apparently is expected to be a biopic that goes deep into the mind of legendary Chicago bank robber John Dillinger and explain what it is that makes him tick. Here’s the thing though, and it is apparent by the approach taken by the filmmakers, Public Enemies is not meant to be a biopic. It is meant to portray a portion of the man’s life and present him just as he is in that moment.

Plot Synopsis: After escaping from prison, John Dillinger is ready to regroup with his fellow gang of robbers and continue on with their Chicago bank raids during the Great Depression. Dillinger’s constant activity prompts Bureau of Investigation (soon to be the FBI) leader J. Edgar Hoover to place him as Public Enemy No. 1 and begin the first major war on crime. Hoover then gives the task of capturing Dillinger to his top agent, Melvin Purvis, who is fresh off of his take down of Pretty Boy Floyd. During one of his breaks, Dillinger tries to woo coat check attendant Billie Frechette, and he isn’t shy about telling her that he robs banks for a living. But the two lovebirds are in for a rough journey, because not only is the Bureau becoming more aggressive in its tactics, but also because John’s heat is starting to be felt in the Mafia underworld.


First off, I’m sure many of you are wondering what approach I’m referring to in the introduction. Rather than presenting in a glossy and polished look not unlike a movie such as Watchmen, director Michael Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti decided to shoot in a gritty, almost documentary style which benefits the “this is how it is in the now” story. There are instances or occasions where this approach looks a little too cheap and low grade, but for the most part it works very well. Aided greatly by the grit and grime are the various and plentiful robberies and shootouts, because if there’s one director who I know can shoot some great action scenes, then it is Michael Mann. Each robbery is as equally suspenseful and stylish as the one that came before it, but each new one gets more messy and disastrous as the movie goes on, especially when Dillinger has to resort to working with Baby Face Nelson. It all peaks in a crackerjack shootout at a mountain lodge that plays out almost like a “you are there” documentary that dives right into the heat of the battle.

But of course the main reason why you and everyone else are going to see Public Enemies is not for the direction or even for the action, but for Johnny Depp’s starring role as the legendary criminal. His performance is the driving force that powers the movie, and he doesn’t disappoint. Everyone knows that Depp can exude charm and charisma in his sleep, but here it’s also backed up by Dillinger’s intense determination and confidence in himself and his abilities. This is especially evident in his devotion to protecting and loving Billie Frechette, played by Marion Cotillard. Cotillard isn’t given much screen time in the middle portion of the story, but thankfully in the third act she knocks her scenes out of the park. Unfortunately, their underdeveloped relationship is also the reason why the movie loses its chance to reach true greatness. The scenes where they first meet aren’t given much time to breathe and to let Dillinger truly woo Billie into joining him in his dangerous lifestyle, so they never really come off as a genuine couple. 


On the side of the ever-persistent FBI is Christian Bale as top agent Melvin Purvis, who is almost like Darth Vader to J. Edgar Hoover’s (Billy Crudup) Emperor Palpatine (for those who know their Star Wars). Bale is less impressive than Depp, and it’s obvious that Purvis’ chase is not the central focus of the story, but he does have some moments of compassion and caring that keep him from being too one-note. Crudup, as despised FBI leader Hoover, is a more simplistic villain than Purvis, but I can see that he is relishing in the opportunity to play such a slimy and slippery character. It is too bad that we never get the chance to really know Dillinger’s relationships with his fellow robbers; then again you can’t have everything.

For those looking for a more mature alternative to the current slate of disappointing dumb blockbusters (ahem Transformers 2), Public Enemies should be a satisfying diversion. But those who are looking for the next instant gangster classic may be a little disappointed.


No comments:

Post a Comment