Genre: Action & Adventure
Runtime: 2 hr 10 min
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale
Unconventional and thrillingly executed.
Review by: MiamiMovieCritic
Added: 8 years ago
Michael Mann's Public Enemies is an unconventional and thrillingly executed biopic of Johnny Dillinger, the bank robber who became something of a folk hero during the Great Depression. That's more information than you'll glean from this movie, which has a very narrow focus and no pretentions to larger meanings. This is another one of Mann's men-at-work pieces. Coming away from it, I can't say I'd learned a whole lot about who Dillinger was, except that he knew how to live and die with a lot of style.
The film is at its best when its focus is strictly procedural. It opens with one of Mann's greatest set pieces: a prison break in Indiana. The way this sequence unfolds – establishing where the characters are, where they need to get to, and why some of them don't get there – makes it clear from the outset that we're in the hands of a master.
The narrative focus is less gripping. Mann devotes significant screen time to Dillinger's love affair with Billie Frechette (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, in a nice English language debut), the coat-check girl he thought he would grow old with. It isn't exactly the greatest love story ever told, which may explain the blunted emotional impact of the final scene.
This is a filmmaker whose work, starting with 1999's The Insider, has grown increasingly stranger. His experiments with story structure and digital video have never been more evident than in Public Enemies. All of the physical details of the Midwest in the 1930s are correct – the desolate country roads, the fedoras, the tommy guns – but they're presented in shaky-cam HD. The effect is disorienting and unaccountably beautiful.
The look of the film is Mann's most successful experiment, but some of his other choices are bewildering. A subplot involving a train robbery masterminded by Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi, a Mann's man if there ever was one) is completely dropped. And the director plays fast and loose with some historical details. For instance, Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham, in a memorably unhinged performance) died after Dillinger, not before.
But I found myself forgiving most of the film's shortcomings. The shoot-outs are nothing short of exhilarating – as broadly staged and colorful as anything in Zack Snyder's Watchmen. And the performances are mostly gangbusters (Billy Crudup has never been better as the effete, merciless J. Edgar Hoover); though after The Dark Knight, Terminator: Salvation and now this, I'm starting to find Christian Bale a little dull. Whatever happened to the chainsaw-wielding maniac in American Psycho?
Depp is charisma personified in this role. His best scene comes when Dillinger, at the height of a nationwide manhunt, simply strolls into the "Dillinger Squad" of the Chicago Police Department and asks the cops what the score of a baseball game is. That may have been the key to Johnny Dillinger, which this ravishing, single-minded film only infrequently captures: he made refusing to play by the rules look too easy.