Image for Film: Public Enemies

Film: Public Enemies

Written by Marcus Campbell on August 13, 2009

Public Enemies
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, David Wenham

In Michael Mann’s first historical film since Ali (2001), the life and death of bank robber John Dillinger provides the ammunition for this latest addition to the long history of the gangster film. Johnny Depp plays Dillinger, a move that will surely take the focus away from whether Public Enemies is a good movie and onto whether his performance lives up to the hype that has surrounded him in recent years. Lets just answer that question and move on; he performs.

As for the rest of the film, it suffers from the fundamental problem with filming a story that is closely based on historic events. What really happened doesn’t actually make a great film no matter how many high-calibre gunfights you can spread across 140 minutes of runtime. Dillinger was a profound character who would win the respect of the people he stole from as well as the lawmen that pursued him. He skilfully evaded the authorities of the day; Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale) and J Edgar Hoover (played brilliantly by Billy Crudup), and outlived his gangster companions…for a little while anyway. Dillinger would live his life on the edge, always too close to a jail cell, too close to the media and his adoring public and too close to the people he loved, which is the cause for his eventual downfall. His impossible relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) is nicely explored and die-hard romantics will love their blunt meeting and explosive end.

But all of this tells a history that would be far better suited to literature rather than film. There are long sections of the story that drag because there is simply not much going on, or anything interesting enough to counterbalance Depp’s incredible acting. He simply holds the whole film together by bringing out the slick, unaffected side of Dillinger, making the character’s ambition and idealism believable. The film is shot in high-definition digital and it gives an interesting realist atmosphere and documentary style, all of which adds to the feeling of authenticity-but style and one actors charisma alone, cannot carry the film. Other gangster films such as the Coen Brother’s Millers Crossing and more recently Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition worked well because they provided it all: a great story, with dense, twisting plotlines, powerful dialogue without the overuse of one-liners,  and multiple complex characters played by great actors. Public Enemies will go down as a good Johnny Depp film, but not a good gangster film.

You will love this if: You want to be able to count the subtle blemishes on Johnny Depp’s face in high definition.
You will hate this if: You love ‘classic’ (and not biographical)  gangster/crime films

Public Enemies is in cinemas now

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