Public Enemies (Movie Review)

Movie Review
Public Enemies
2009
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard
Directed by: Michael Mann

Gangster movies are not in short supply but good films that treat the bad guy as the principal character depicting an era prior to the time period of The Godfather are rare. Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is a solid entry into such a genre. It’s basted on the story of John Dillinger and his gang. It does a great job showing off what that time period resembles. It’s supported by stellar acting and an interesting story. Overall, this is really good film.

Notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) flees from jail after his gang helps break him out. After the violent escape, Depp continues going about his business as America’s most dangerous and successful bank robber. Crime fighters from the municipal level through to the federal level want to see Dillinger behind bars again without even being able to dream about escaping. The FBI assigns agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to the case. Purvis is as straight-laced as they come and becomes more determined than anyone else to put Dillinger in jail for good.

As time goes on, it will become more difficult to make films about the 19th and early 20th century. Not due to any limitations on technology or creativity but because we’ll try to use technology too much and be overly creative on how we portray a time in Western history where the world was leaving the industrial revolution and becoming more of an advanced society. The film tries very hard to capture the essence of 1930s America. It succeeds for the most part as it doesn’t feel too much like a 21st century film trying to recreate an earlier era. Of course, there are advance lighting techniques that weren’t possible ten years ago in cinema let alone eighty years ago that make the production feel a little less authentic. However, Mann doesn’t employ too many gimmicks that would make the period the film is about out of place. He successfully was able to walk the fine line of cinema magic and overkill. It would have been a lot worse had a director like Michael Bay been at the helm.

But it’s just not the way the film was shot that does a great job at covering the period. The costume design and filming locations really bring out the feel of the 30s. It doesn’t feel like everyone is playing dress-up and putting on a show. It feels like we’re taking a glimpse into the time period. It helps that the acting is very well done here. Depp and Bale do an excellent job stepping into their roles of Dillinger and Purvis. They made it feel real; almost to a point where you don’t expect the credits to roll at the end of the film.

The movie does have its flaws, though. A major one I find is that the relationship between Purvis and Dillinger seems a bit unbalanced. Except for at the beginning of the film when the movie is establishing that Dillinger is the most notorious bank robber in the United States, it quickly feels as if he’s the underdog and that Purvis has the constant upper hand. I don’t know much about the legend or history of John Dillinger but even if the movie was 100% historically accurate, it would have been acceptable if the movie was told in a way that would have made Dillinger a stronger adversary to Purvis. I mean, this movie is about how amazing a character Dillinger is. It’s kind of lame that the main character in the movie, who is a man on the run from the law, seems to be easier to catch than the common cold. For the most part, it seems that Dillinger’s escapes are due to luck or incompetence; which makes the character seem weak.

Public Enemies is a great film. It does have its problems that hurt it from becoming a classic but it is still an immensely enjoyable movie to watch. There are times where Michael Mann’s film seems to walk a fine line between a realistic portrayal of the era and an overindulgence of special effects to make the 30s look drastically different from today, but it handles itself really well. It’s an interesting story and, for the most part, is a pleasure to watch.

☆☆☆☆

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