Review: Public Enemies (2009)

Public Enemies

Directed by: Michael Mann
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard

Michael Mann’s latest is a lavish period piece detailing the life of notorious Depression-era gangster, John Dillinger, as he and his equally notorious band of lackeys travel far and wide to rob the banks that’d so openly plunged the United States deep into one of its most recognized periods of economic recession. Along the way, Dillinger manages to procure the title of “Public Enemy No. 1” from J. Edgar Hoover and his then budding FBI, thus forcing Hoover to hire top agent Melvin Purvis in an attempt to once and for all close in on Dillinger by assembling a team of the best lawmen the country has seen.

For starters, Public Enemies isn’t a bad film, but it does suffer from a genuine lack of several important elements that could’ve undoubtedly transformed it into one of the best of ’09, the first of which is the apparent absence of character development via an altogether lackluster script. To elaborate, Mann’s telling of the story of Dillinger is particularly adherent to historical detail, yes, but despite the efforts of a truly phenomenal cast, we’re offered little else to satisfy our craving to sympathize with the one gangster that’d essentially molded himself into a proverbial “folk hero” based on the bank robberies he’d helmed throughout the Great Depression.

Another problem the film suffers from in this regard is Dillinger’s relationship with Billie Frenchette, the presence of whom becomes almost annoyingly inconsistent as the film trudges through its 140+ minute runtime. Granted, her and Dillinger’s initial meeting and eventual relationship may be profiled as accurately as can be, but the interaction between them never once feels genuine, therefore when the time comes to show some sympathy towards the closest thing Public Enemies has to a leading lady, it’s safe to say you’ll have a hard time doing so.

Writing aside, Mann indeed proves he still possesses the directorial prowess needed to produce respectable pieces of cinema. So, what the film lacks in terms of thoroughly fleshed out characters and appropriate pacing, it just about makes up for in the form of some pretty excellent action sequences. Yes, some may find the camerawork to be a little clunky and “nauseating” at points, but I do feel it’s appropriate to a degree and although it could’ve been toned down a bit at parts, doing away with it would effectively take away from Mann’s already mediocre gangster biopic.

In the end, I found myself pretty disappointed with Public Enemies. Although painstakingly faithful to the story surrounding Dillinger and his acquaintances, Michael Mann’s latest suffers from a lack of actual character development, some minor pacing issues, and a borderline overlong runtime. However, it’s the efforts of Bale, Depp, and a majority of the supporting cast including Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover that really manage to carry the film all the way through to its somewhat rushed conclusion. Now this isn’t to say Public Enemies is an altogether bad film; it most certainly isn’t, but given the sky-high expectations I’d had prior to its release, it ultimately fell short in satisfying them come showtime.

Rating: 5/10

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