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REVIEW: “Public Enemies”

Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale

Johnny Depp just looks so cool holding a submachine gun in "Public Enemies" that you almost forgot that John Dillenger was a sociopathic murderer. Too bad the screenwriters did.

Depp looks so cool holding a submachine gun in "Public Enemies" that you forget the real Dillenger was a sociopathic murderer.

The crimes committed by protagonist John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” are rooted in robbing banks, but the film as a whole also shares a common label with the legal policy of Prohibition from the same period: both could, at the very least, be said to be noble experiments.  Though the film is not the unmitigated disaster that Prohibition was (I never said it was astrong analogy), it falls short on a few levels.

Perhaps no director is more appropriate to direct an adaptation of the story of Dillinger than Michael Mann, a director who is often seen as one of the few respected action flick auteurs even though the action sequences he shoots are secondary or tertiary to dramatic tension and character development, which are exactly the qualities that make him a good filmmaker. An action sequence can only thrill and excite once, but a truly good film stays with the audience and stands up to future viewings. Unfortunately, those qualities are largely absent for the majority of this film.

In its first two acts, the film attempts to look at the events unfolding from a distance. It neither seeks to pass judgment on Dillinger or try to paint him as too much of a folk hero, though it does whitewash the fact that he did indeed kill people in cold blood.  Instead, it opts for a straightforward re-enactment of the events that unfold. The unintended consequence is that we don’t get to know who any of these key players really are beyond their names and/or their roles in the events that unfold. Members of Dillinger’s gang are interchangeable to the extent that when their pictures are shown later on in the film and their status listed as “deceased” by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the audience is left wondering whether or not they saw the death occur. It becomes a bigger problem when the film attempts to establish loyalty as one of Dillinger’s key characteristics; it’s nigh impossible to get so invested and sympathetic to Dillinger’s loyalty to his men when so many of them are faceless shapes of men in dark blue suits and longcoats.

Thankfully, Johnny Depp’s performance in the third act ends up ultimately saving the film from being a complete waste. Just as the Bureau intensifies its manhunt, Depp himself makes the extra effort to break through an otherwise mundane recounting of Dillinger’s words and actions to give him a dimension that makes it worth getting invested in the character. Unfortunately he can’t compensate for a lame-duck opposite number in Christian Bale as Melvin Pervis. Pervis isn’t supposed to be an uninteresting dullard whose crisis of conscience comes across as a bit contrived; that’s just how the woefully overrated and detached Bale chose to portray him.

You haven't seen Christian Bale's S***ty Acting Face until you've seen his S***ty Acting Face filmed in HD.

You haven't seen Christian Bale's S***ty Acting Face until you've seen his S***ty Acting Face filmed in HD.

Much has been made of Mann’s decision to shoot the entire film in HD and the aesthetic it lends the film. While some have praised the sharp visuals, others criticized the decision and felt it didn’t jive with the story that Mann was trying to present. Personally, I don’t feel that the HD cameras were going to detract or enhance what was, for much of the film, a fairly uninspired retelling of the Dillenger story and a fairly uninteresting (and lazy) dime novel presentation of the man himself. I do think that the HD cameras work great for hectic action sequences in the film, in particular the Indiana jail break sequence. But I’m no cinematographer. As for the sharp HD images not jiving with the gritty details of the story, I think the real issue is that Mann opted not to tell a gritty, noir-ish crime drama and instead opted to film a costume period drama about bank robbers.

The film is worth going out of your way to see if you plan on throwing it at the top of your Netflix queue. In particular, crime flicks don’t get much better than the last third of the film, starting with the introduction of Babyface Nelson. Unfortunately it feels like a completely separate film from what comes before, and one really has to put in the effort to get re-invested in the characters and events of the film. “Public Enemies” is a film has its moments, and those moments are great. It just doesn’t seem like it deserves them.

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