Tuesday, September 08, 2009


Year: 2009

Director: Michael Mann
Writers: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, Ann Biderman

Book: Bryan Burrough (Public Enemies: American Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34)

Stars: JOHNNY DEPP, Christian Bale, Billy Crudup, James Russo, David Wenham, Giovanni Ribisi, Marion Cotillard, Stephen Graham, Lili Taylor, John Ortiz, Channing Tatum, Stephen Dorff, Richard Short.

Public Enemies is a gritty sort of 'photo-real' account of 1930s depression ravaged America, and its love-affair with the infamous Tommy-gun wielding gangster ‘John Dillinger’.

Filmed in high-definition digital format, with a hand-held camera, the schizophrenic effects of the shaky visuals make it difficult to engage with the subject. Minimal grounded camera focus, although irritating, can have its advantages. This is a sort of crazy violent shoot’em up gangster flick that has intelligence behind the wobbly lens. But it’s no ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ or ‘The Untouchables’.

At times, scenes mirror an embedded journalist’s video diary on what it’s like to ride with gangsters as they embark on a heist. At others, it can feel like you’ve just stepped into the middle of a war zone, and the exploding ear-popping machine gun fire has you blinking at excess mph, while being unceremoniously pushed to the edge of your seat.

The movie essentially plays like a Western, complete with desperate cowboys, sheriffs and hired guns. Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger is a throw-back of that era. He’s the last great outlaw of the wild-west. A ‘Robin Hood’ folk hero with a limited shelf-life, and old-fashioned methods to combat the new technological age of the FBI, or rather the ‘G-Men’ as they were known.

It’s a movie packed full of period detail and references; the fedora hats, Chicago mobsters, and classic Ford cars. But it's not a typical recreation. There's a dark, menacing feeling to the visuals, with an inspired use of music punctuating nearly every scene's emotion, revealing the inevitability of it all.

We get to see some of those other infamous bank robbers from the great depression, such as Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) and Baby Face Nelson (an exuberant performance by Stephen Graham). Also, a youngish J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), having a real air of authenticity about him. Johnny Depp shines in the role of Dillinger, with his heart-throb looks and sly grin, but no one character outshines another in this picture; the credits are shared by all.

Even Christian Bale, yet again cast as the guy with the most difficult job in the universe, has to share the limelight in the character of ‘Agent Melvin Purvis’. He’s a man desperate to apprehend Public Enemy No. 1 without making it personal. He fails when, in one jail-house scene, Dillinger teases him, “You ought to find a new profession… Melvin”. Purvis hesitates for a moment, before exiting without saying a word.

When it comes to telling the story of desperate men with few words, director Michael Mann has the credentials. ‘The Insider’, ‘Heat’, and ‘Collateral’ do it with style. Public Enemies is a new take on an old game. Here, Mann gives us a Dillinger who starts off cock-sure, but ends his journey as the tragic anti-hero of a by-gone age, destined to spend eternity on celluloid, just like his own immortal heroes have done countless times before.

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