Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

In 1979 when I was about eleven or twelve years old I saw a TV movie called ‘The Jericho Mile’. I didn’t know nor care what a film director was at the time but even at that young age I thought I was watching something fairly impressive with ‘The Jericho Mile’ and it is still one my favorite movies to this day, which is saying something because a lot of the times the things we used to love as children have a difficult time maintaining that love into our adulthood. This apparently also began my one sided non-gay love affair with director Michael Mann. ‘Thief’, the ‘Miami Vice’ television series, ‘Manhunter’, ‘Heat’ just to name a few, films from Michael Mann rarely disappoint. Even films of his which haven’t been received all that well such as the ‘Miami Vice’ feature film or to a lesser extent ‘Collateral’, I have also enjoyed leading me to say that Michael Mann as a film director has never let me down. At least until today. Perhaps crumbling under the weight of my own anticipation, I mean we’re talking Mann and Johnny Depp taking on John Dillinger, ‘Public Enemies’ never ascends to be the great movie that I had already written it off to be even before I got a chance to see it. And that would be my fault.

It doesn’t take long for this movie to show the kind of brass that John Dillinger (Depp) possesses as he and his boy Red (Jason Clarke) casually stroll into a high security prison and bust out a few members of his crew. We also see that while Dillinger is loyal to his crew, if you step out of line or don’t follow the rules you might not make through the night. With his crew back together it’s not long John got back to doing what John does which is robbing banks, and among this time John D. was among the best if not THE best.

Now despite the public love funneled Dillinger’s way, a public who somehow saw him as some kind of warped version of Robin Hood, his exploits have caught the attention of FBI director Herbert Hoover (Billy Crudup) who has assigned his top man Melvin

Purvis (Christian Bale), the man who deep sixed Pretty Boy Floyd (allegedly), the arduous task of bringing down Dillinger. Purvis isn’t long on the gig before he realizes that bringing down a superior criminal requires superior lawmen, lawmen Purvis doesn’t have, and these lawmen had best be ready to do some things which definitely blurred an already shaky line between the good guys and the bad guys.

Meanwhile Dillinger soldiers on robbing banks, falling for the pretty girl (Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette), gets himself captured, busts out in spectacular fashion yet again, robs some more banks all the while with the net of the law getting tighter and tighter. And if you know the story of John Dillinger you know that the last movie he saw in his life was Clark Gable’s ‘Manhattan Melodrama’. Note to self: Never trust a Romanian whore.

When making the statement that I was disappointed by ‘Public Enemies’ it’s certainly not because of a lack of quality elements that have gone into producing this film. This a movie that is grand in its presentation, the sets, clothes and cars all look fantastic and do a wonderful job placing you in the era of the 1930’s. The cast is top notch and the director is about as good as a film director gets, but… something was missing. Johnny Depp plays Dillinger as one cool customer but, in my opinion, he plays the man a little ‘too’ cool. Whether he’s courting a girl, robbing a bank, engaged in a shootout or just having a drink, this realities John Dillinger’s emotional levels rarely raise above a simmer, and if your main character isn’t getting excited about much, including having sex with a beautiful woman which is something he does ‘cool’ too, then I don’t how I’m supposed to get all that excited about whatever situation he happens to be in. It also appears that the term ‘a cast of thousands’ was taken literally with this film because there were so many different mobsters and cops and G-men that keeping track of them and what purpose they served and what they were supposed to do was almost dizzying. I also didn’t care for the way this particular story was told. Nine times out of ten it’s a good thing for a script not to romanticize or demonize its biographical subject. Nine times out of ten. ‘Public Enemies’ tells its story almost as if you were watching an episode of ‘Biography’, minus a bunch of those bothersome truthful dramatic license ruining facts. Though I appreciate the effort of Mann and his crew in staying largely in the middle of the story of John Dillinger and his exploits, personally I don’t think it made for great visual cinema. It was still watchable but oddly uninvolving. Only Billy Crudup’s J. Edgar Hoover seemed to have some kind of workable personality which at least brought out a little emotion or opinion out of this particular movie watcher but he only had a couple of scenes.

I would say there’s too much talent in front and behind the camera of ‘Public Enemies’ for me or anyone to call it a bad film but considering this wealth of talent, the colorful time period and a character who is larger than life, almost to fictional proportions, I don’t think it’s unfair to comment that I was expecting it to be more.

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