Movie Review: Public Enemies (2009)

Michael Mann’s recent box office success Public Enemies looked so full of promise. This true story of bank robberies and jail breaks, starring Johnny Depp as the notorious John Dillinger, and Christian Bale as his cocksure antagonist, FBI agent Melvin Purvis, should have it all. At two and a half hours, this should be an epic action adventure that will have you on the edge of your seat. You will note that I use the word ‘should’. It ‘should’ be a lot of things, but sadly it isn’t.

Although both actors work well with the material they are given, the material is lacking in so many areas that I hardly know where to start. Purvis is an unflappable, arrogant, determined, and stoic character played competently by Bale. But what the writer has failed to capture, is the frustration Purvis would have felt each time Dillinger slipped through his fingers. Purvis would have been furious! This agent, praised in the press for his ability to ‘get his man’ is being publicly humiliated by his squad’s incompetence at every turn, and yet he remains unrealistically calm.

The fact is, Purvis’ squad could not be any more incompetent; at one point Dillinger actually walks right into the FBI Dillinger Squad’s office and waves himself under their noses! This was one of the few moments that I really enjoyed as it showed us something of Dillinger’s character. Another, later in the movie is when he is talking about how the faces of dying men keep you awake at night and he is asked, “what keeps you awake at night?” His response? One word: ‘Coffee’. Brilliant! That one word tells you more about Dillinger than the whole rest of the movie. I wanted this guy to be that cool all the way through.

To some, Dillinger was a ‘Robin Hood’ character, to others a heinous criminal, I was left undecided, which can only be a reflection of how vague the storytelling of Public Enemies is. There are many characters that come and go so quickly, I was left confused as to why they’d been introduced at all. Why should these people matter to us if we don’t even know who they are? I’m sure that back in their day these characters with the colorful names were living legends, but I wasn’t around back in the day and was left wondering about them. They should have been explored in more depth, or left out altogether.

Also, I was not convinced by the love story between Dillinger and his girl ‘Billie’ (Marion Cotillard). The chemistry between the two actors could have been better, and I wondered just how much of this great romance should be believed, after all, later in the movie he is at the cinema with a prostitute! Am I to believe they are ‘just good friends’? My reaction to the movie was hugely dependant on my acceptance of the depth of feeling between these two characters. Believing in this relationship was a crucial factor, and unfortunately, as I was skeptical about their romance, it was impossible for me to care enough about it.

On a positive note, the movie looks good. No question (apart from the race track scene where there’s an over-abundance of beiges and creams!), these guys look cool. The shoot-out scenes are brilliant, but like the robbery scenes they are over all too soon. The cars are cool, the guns are cool, and for the most part the direction is cool. Why, this movie could have been as cool as ice and I’m pretty cheesed off that it was wasted. These great-looking scenes are cut between sprawling scenes of ‘not much doing’. The movie spends too much time building the unbelievable romance in an obvious attempt to show us Dillinger’s softer side. It should focus more on the other facets of his character. It would have been nice to leave the cinema feeling I knew a little more about him (I came out knowing he was a jail-breaking, bank robber, but I knew that when I went in.)

Ultimately, Public Enemies spends too much time telling us that this is a cat and mouse story and not enough time showing us the action of the chase. We’ve all heard the saying ‘the chase is better than the catch’ but in this instance neither one are exciting enough. It has all the ingredients, and at times looks so slick and glamorous that I really want to like it. I have no doubt that some people, trying to be sophisticated, will declare this as a ‘brilliant, epic movie’, and others will jump on their band wagon, scared to death that they’ll be rumbled for not being discerning enough to appreciate such a classy film.

I’m glad I watched it, because those cool scenes, albeit short, are so sweet, and for those few moments of glory this film is worth a watch.

Critical Movie Critic Rating:
3 Star Rating: Average


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