Public Enemies (2009)



Michael Mann makes some great films.  I loved Heat and grew up on Miami Vice. Well, with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale as his lead actors based around John Dillinger’s rise and fall, I was intrigued.

The first thing that impressed me the most, was the look and sound of the film. It’s fantastic. The settings and costumes of the 1930’s is perfect, making you almost feel the fabric of the tweeds, the cotton of their shirts. Everything is immaculate which should result with an Oscar.  Mann’s infamous scene in Heat during the bank robbery is known for it’s lack of music and steady hum of machine gun fire. There’s quite a few of these in Public Enemies. You can hear the bullets pounding, thumping the buildings, cars, trees, anything that gets in the way of a tommy gun or rifle.  What makes these scenes so powerful is that Mann shoots his action sequences so clearly. You can follow the action, which isn’t cluttered or choppy,  sometimes giving a clean birds eye view when needed. There is no doubt or hesitation when someone gets shot, punched or scheming an attack. You know where everyone is and can anticipate the action properly. This is the strength of the film: the combination of great sound, settings and cinematography.

Well, the core of any good film is good characters to propel the story forward. Mann has this potential with Bale vs Depp, but doesn’t develop the characters enough, giving them instead aloof, detached demeanors, coldly moving the plot forward and to its conclusion. Depp’s romance and true love, played by the lovely Marion Cotillard, is supposed to show the intimate side of Dillinger, but he doesn’t convincinly show why he’s so crazy about her, why he’s willing to risk his safety for hers. Cotillard’s part amounts to nothing more than a sideshow unfortunately. Bale brings his usual intensity to this role and it comes off flat. He seems more military than FBI or police, coming off too cold, almost forcing the audience to cheer on Depp’s Dillinger. Depp’s acting is impeccable but he also seems limited by the script which doesn’t fully develop his character like Bale’s. He’s on screen for almost every frame of film, but in the end, we don’t learn much more about him.

The plot is solid enough. It’s an easy story to follow and keeps us engaged, wondering when or how he’ll be caught (if you don’t know already). But even with the detailed settings, superb sound and well done action sequences, the film comes off as empty because the characters don’t capture enough of our interests to truly care.


6 Responses to “Public Enemies (2009)”

  1. Saw the film last night and was truly blown away, the fashion was fantastic, best i have ever seen.

    • 2 Amar Rehal

      Yeah, the fashion and the settings were spot on. Everyone was dressed perfectly, fantastic job by the costume designer!

  2. I’ve just created a post on my blog regarding which Johnny Depp movie’s are people’s favorite’s. I loved “Public Enemies”, but it was hardly his best movie…actually, I tend to think that some of the least seen movie’s he’s made are perhap’s some of his best…”The Libertine” come’s to mind. In any case, let me know what you think and if at all possible, post some link’s on my blog to some interesting Johnny Depp info…alway’s a fan of JD! Thank’s! 🙂

    • 4 Amar Rehal

      I agree, Public Enemies isn’t his best film! I’m a big fan of his earlier work, my favorite being either Dead Man or Ed Wood. Thanks for the post!

  3. 5 toshiro mifune

    Your review is spot on. The gunfights in this were the best I’ve seen since “Heat.” Like in “Heat,” the gunfights would end and only then would I notice that my hands had clenched into tense fists from how dynamic the action was.

    And I think you’re right about how in Mann’s movies you always know what’s going on in the action. Take for example “The Dark Knight.” Great movie, for sure, but not a great action movie. The actions scenes were just too jumbled, victims of extreme close-ups and too many jump cuts. Definitely not the worst offender among modern action movies, but a good example…I think the reason that Mann’s action scenes stand out so much are because you can fully grasp where people are in relation to each other, etc. Being able to follow the action just makes the viewer more invested in the action.

    I really enjoyed the way that the movie essentially argued that modernity spelled the end of Dillinger and his ilk. Between the nationalization of law enforcement and of crime, Dillinger just couldn’t survive. I also thought it was great how the movie depicted how the benefit of modernity passed from the insurgents to the establishment. In the bank heists at the beginning of the movie, you could see that Dillinger’s gang had harnessed the tools of modernity (the tommy gun and the automobile) to an extent that law enforcement just couldn’t match, only to fall behind once the FBI and the Chicago Outfit got invovled.

    Agreed about the lack of character development. The performances were great (especially Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover, who was outstanding, but Depp and Bale were good as well) but the actors were working with a screenplay that never really explained the main characters’ motivations or their inner demons. One big example is when [SPOILER] at the end of the movie, a text postscript informs us that Melvin Purvis retired from the FBI a year after the events depicted in the movie and eventually died by his own hand. [END SPOILER] The movie never portrayed Purvis as anything other than a steely-resolved, incorruptible lawman. Is it too much to ask that the movie provide enough depth of character that we could understand the inner stresses and contradictions that Purvis obviously must have gone through, given his later history?

    Ultimately, though, a very good summer action movie. I think this is the sort of thing that summer blockbusters should aspire to – well-made, intelligently done action, made for adults, not teenagers. Of course, it’s crazy to even think that given the downbeat tone of the movie …

  4. 6 Amar Rehal

    now that you mention it, yeah, mann really presented it well regarding the decline of gangsters, with dillinger being the last of his breed. thinking back, it is interesting and well done how mann shows the gradual loss of power for dillinger, until finally he succumbs to disguise and guile while hiding in chicago with minimal prospects, biding his time, all his friends and reliable partners either jailed or dead.

    the birth of the FBI is an interesting back drop for the film and could have served as a different film altogether. it could be interesting to make a movie such as this: purvis and hoover track down legendary gangsters John Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson, Kate “Ma” Barker, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

    anyway, disappointing bale played a hardened, robot machine character (see terminator salvation) after such depth with past roles like american psycho, the machinist, harsh times, etc, etc. the role didn’t do him any good but a fat paycheck. depp may have also collected, accepting a role that barely asked him to look within himself.

    overall, though, it was an enjoyable blockbuster, much better than most of the previous films that had come out. i think i had high expectations, too high perhaps, being a fan of mann. also, i didn’t think the film was downbeat, but more dry than anything else, like it lacked a pulse. anyway, good stuff. you’re insight and writing is a pleasure to read. thank you.

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