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4 reviews, 35 user ratings

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Public Enemies
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Outsider"
5 stars

Michael Mann‘s “Public Enemies” is an endlessly fascinating examination of one of the key events in our nation’s history of criminal behavior--the crime spree committed by bank robber John Dillinger in the early 1930’s until he was finally brought down by Melvin Purvis, an agent from the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Investigation--that tells its tale in a sumptuously designed and minutely detailed fashion that manages to remain compelling despite its essential familiarity and featuring top-notch contributions from everyone on both sides of the camera. In other words, anyone walking into the film expecting just another gangster movie is going to come away shocked and surprised at what Mann has in store for them--a pop-art American epic that works equally well as a gripping action extravaganza and as a gorgeous art-house ravishment. The result is not only one of the best films of 2009, it is easily one of the very best films of its kind to come along since Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” and coming from someone who worships that film as highly as I do, that is strong praise indeed.

The film opens in 1933, a time described in a title card as “The Golden Age of the Bank Robbery,” and kicks off with Dillinger (Johnny Depp) engineering the spectacular escape of a number of his cohorts from the Indiana State Penitentiary, a facility from which he had been released from only a few weeks earlier after doing a nine-year stretch. With these colleagues, including John “Red” Hamilton (Jason Clarke) and Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff), he begins a string of dazzling and intricately planned bank robberies that earn him thousands of dollars and which make him a hero to much of the Depression-era populace, who look at him as a sort of Robin Hood sticking it to the banks that they blame for their current financial hardships. Dillinger embraces that man-of-the-people pose--he refuses to take part in a kidnapping plot because “the public don’t like kidnappers” and believes that part of his success is because he is able to hide in plain sight amidst a public that wouldn’t dream of turning him in. He is so confident in this, in fact, that when he meets the beautiful hat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) one night at the Aragon Ballroom, he almost instantly tells her exactly who he his and exactly what he does for a living. His only flaw, at least from a criminal perspective, is his devil-may-care attitude towards his long-range plans--when colleague Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) points out that times are changing and that their particular way of life is almost certainly coming to an end, Dillinger merely points out that he is having too much fun at the moment to even think about the future.

Meanwhile, back in Washington D.C., J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) is trying to convince the government to expand the budget and powers for the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation that he runs. Unfortunately for him, the people in charge of overseeing the agency turn down his request while reminding him that he has never personally made an arrest before in his life. In order to build support for the agency with the public, Hoover designates Dillinger as Public Enemy #1 and assigns Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the top field agent responsible from bringing down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), to head the Chicago branch of the FBI with the top priority being the capture of Dillinger utilizing the new-fangled scientific methods of investigation that he is putting into place. Purvis takes to the job but after a blown stakeout of one of Dillinger’s haunts leads to the death of one agent and the escape of fellow gangster Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), he realizes that the sophisticated means by which he is supposed to capture his quarry simply won’t do against the ferocious likes of Dillinger’s men. It is only when he brings in a few exceptionally hard-boiled gunmen from down south to lend assistance is he able to finally apprehend Dillinger in Arizona and extradite him to Indiana to stand trial. When Dillinger arrives, he is treated like a celebrity--the streets line with people eager to get a look at him and even the prison warden poses with him for a few deeply embarrassing photos--and his legend grows exponentially when he busts out of jail using nothing more than a wooden gun.

It is at this point that things begin to go wrong for both the pursued and the pursuer alike. Because they perceive him as a loose cannon who answers to nobody and whose exploits are bringing undue heat upon their own endeavors, organized crime leaders such as Frank Nitti no longer allow Dillinger to utilize any of their safehouses or assets while hiding out. As a result, Dillinger begins to grow desperate and allows himself to take part in poorly planned criminal acts that result in high body counts and low dollar amounts. At the same time, Purvis is under increasing pressure from Hoover to apprehend Dillinger at all costs and this drives him to make mistakes as well--at one point, he and his men have the drop on a wounded Dillinger, along with Baby Face Nelson, at the remote Little Bohemia lodge in Wisconsin following a botched robbery and he still manages to get away and return to Billie in Chicago. When she is arrested during a sting operation designed to ensnare him, he goes into hiding once again until his whereabouts are tipped to the FBI by Anna Sage (Branka Katic), a longtime associate who sells him out to prevent her deportation. This all leads to the inevitable final scene in which Dillinger is gunned down by Purvis’ men outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre after taking in a screening of “Manhattan Melodrama,” a gangster film that was at least partially inspired by public interest in criminals such as him.

The challenge of making a film about John Dillinger is the inescapable fact that the broad details are fairly well known to most potential audience members--even if you discount the previous screen versions of his life (including a 1945 B movie with Lawrence Tierney in the lead and the 1973 version, which marked the directorial debut of John Milius, that featured Warren Oates as Dillinger)it is unlikely that most people going to see “Public Enemies” will be in the dark as to how it ends when they enter the theater. However, by utilizing the unique skill set that has made him one of America’s leading filmmakers, Michael Mann has figured out a way to approach the material in such a way that it actually feels fresh and new. For one thing, he resists the urge to burden the film and its characters with long expository scenes in which they reveal their histories as a way of explaining what motivates them. Dillinger sums up his early life in a couple of terse sentences and nothing more needs to be said on the subject. Beyond that, Mann prefers to let his characters express themselves purely through their actions--both Dillinger and Purvis are bold, strong and efficient when they are in control, less so when they aren’t and who are both undone in the end by their inability to fully understand the forces surrounding them. (Little more than a year after the death of Dillinger, Purvis would be hounded out the FBI by Hoover, who was jealous over the credit that he felt belonged to him instead of Purvis.) He also eschews traditional storytelling elements for the minute attention to detail that quietly adds an extra level of realism to the proceedings (the film was shot in many of the locations where the events actually occurred) and while this particular approach may seem a little too cold and analytical to someone in the mood for a juicier storyline, I personally found it to be far more riveting than a standard take might have been. (Hell, I even learned that the infamous “Lady in Red” didn’t exactly come as advertised.)

While most filmmakers probably would have done everything in their power to accentuate the period nature of the story by accentuating a self-consciously retro visual style, Mann has gone in the exact opposite reaction by shooting the entire film using the same digital process that he has utilized since “Collateral.” When the first trailers for the film emerged, I must admit that the combination of the period subject matter and the cutting-edge visual style was a bit disconcerting but now that I have seen the entire film, it makes a lot more sense. Essentially, Mann is trying to remove the distance between the audience and the subject matter by choosing a visual style that brings the two closer together and it works beautifully--the camerawork allows us to get right into the middle of the chaotic action scenes while also giving us gorgeous period recreations as lush and lustrous as any that have been captured on DV. Another method of bringing the audience and the subject together is the casting of Johnny Depp, one of the biggest movie stars of our time and one of the few who still maintains a certain rebellious public persona, as Dillinger. Some have criticized Depp’s performance for being more of a series of poses than anything else but I think that is seriously underrating his work here. Yes, he is all brash movie-star charisma in the first half of the film but that is how Dillinger is supposed to be during that period--brash, bold and in love with his own growing legend. As the second half progresses and things begin to go downhill for him, he suggests that in any number of small but telling ways--he is a little more slumped over, a little sweatier and he develops the kind of half-hearted mustache that you normally only seen on the lips of the loser characters in B movies. In fact, this is probably the best and least-mannered performance that he has done in a long time and it serves as a reminder that he doesn’t need to play a totally outsized character in order to hold the attention of viewers.

In other regards, though, “Public Enemies” is prime Michael Mann material from start to finish and he doesn’t let us down for a second. Having already created some of the great action scenes of modern cinema in his previous films, he all but tops himself here with the extended sequence chronicling the botched assault on the Little Bohemia lodge, a chunk of pure cinema that stands in blessed relief to most similar scenes seen these days. The action has been choreographed in such a way so that we always have a firm grasp on where the various participants are at any given time and it has been captured by cinematographer Dante Spinotti in such striking tableau of midnight-black backgrounds punctuated by brief bursts of gunfire that you almost want to frame individual shots and hang them on your wall in order to better study their terrible beauty. (Even more startling is how quiet the sequence is in comparison to most other scenes of its type--everything is oddly muted aside from bullet bursts that are actually able to make an impact on viewers as a result.) Although this is the action highlight of the film, the other key set-pieces are nothing to sneeze at either--the bust-out from the Indiana prison at the midway point is another stunning bit of choreography and the finale outside the Biograph actually builds a considerable amount of tension despite its foregone conclusion. Mann also does a wonderful job of wrangling together an enormous cast and giving each one a moment or two to shine--although the romance between Dillinger and Billie Frechette doesn’t dominate the proceedings in the way that it might have in another film, Marion Cotillard brings a lot of fire to the role and Christian Bale does a good job of conveying the outwardly cool, inwardly tormented mindset of Purvis. There are even nice bits of dark humor strewn throughout the screenplay--I love how one of the investigators learns that Dillinger will be at one of two movie theaters, looks up what is playing at both and confidently concludes “John Dillinger ain’t going to see Shirley Temple.”

Last week, you may recall, I reviewed the mega-sequel “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and in that somewhat negative-minded piece, I calmly suggested that the film was one of the most complete cases of artistic abdication that I could ever recall seeing and made the point that not only did absolutely nothing about it work in any way, shape or form, it seemed to be going out of its way to find new ways in which to offend the eye, ear and central nervous system. In fact, it failed so completely to provide any sort of genuine entertainment or artistic qualities--unless you consider being punched in the face with a six-pack of Red Bull for 150 minutes to be entertaining or artistic--that merely remarking on how much it missed those marks hardly seemed an adequate method of describing the horror. Well, a wise man once said that the best way to critique a movie was to make another movie and while it may not have been designed as such, “Public Enemies” stands as a perfect rebuttal to the sins of that film. After all, both were conceived as big summer blockbusters, both feature casts of good-looking stars and elaborate action sequences and both have arrived in theaters amidst enormous amounts of hype. The difference is that while “Transformers” is nothing more than an extended toy commercial aimed slightly beneath the lowest common denominator and made by people who are clearly putting in the barest effort imaginable in exchange for gargantuan paychecks, “Public Enemies” has been made by people who have genuine tried to create something great and you can feel it in every lustrous frame. As bad as “Transformers Deux” was, that is how good this film is.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18126&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/01/09 00:04:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/25/20 morris campbell good flick 4 stars
9/22/12 roscoe Hated this. Depp is miscast. Little action, no interest, no intensity, overlong 1 stars
9/19/10 Jan Patterson Disappoints. Some cllassic Mann, beautiful Depp moments stolen by careless camera & editing 2 stars
3/06/10 matt upon further review, hugely flawed 2 stars
1/27/10 Durwood Good gangster film, but you can't feel sorry for Dillinger--he was nothing but a crook! 4 stars
12/31/09 mr.mike Action Fan beat me to it. Oates and Stanton were priceless in that film. 3 stars
12/18/09 Monday Morning Amazing they can spend $200+ mil. and come up with this underwhelming, disappointing film 2 stars
12/11/09 Jack I'm stunned. Mann has lost it. Period. 1 stars
12/10/09 action movie fan dillinger 1973 was far better-faster moving and more comic relief 2 stars
12/05/09 matt fictionalized, but hugely entertaining 5 stars
10/19/09 The Lurchprong Splitter Setup hindered by overindulgence in being a period piece. 3 stars
9/01/09 Jeff Wilder Effective old school gangster flick. Depp great. Bale effective but underused. 4 stars
8/30/09 Dave Phosdyk I 'd give it 3 and a half stars 3 stars
7/23/09 Toni Gangsters with Tommy guns, classic Mann what more could you ask for? 4 stars
7/22/09 stiletto average blahhhhhhhhhhhh 1 stars
7/21/09 Gummby3 It's nice to see Hollywood writers actually create something original for once. 4 stars
7/17/09 MoovieMac Literate and thoughtful. Takes you back effectively to this time and place. Like a Monogram 4 stars
7/17/09 R.W. Welch C+ account of Dillinger days; could have been tightened up. 3 stars
7/16/09 damalc it must have been hard to make a movie starring Depp so uninteresting 3 stars
7/11/09 Jeff Wilder Good gangster film that's easy to admire. But tough to love. Mann's a master filmmaker. 4 stars
7/11/09 Ivan Lendl ditto Brian Orndorf 2 stars
7/11/09 Ivan Lendl brilliant review and writing by Erik Childress 2 stars
7/10/09 MP Bartley If you want things spelling out for you, watch a Ron Howard film. Terrific entertainment. 4 stars
7/06/09 michael man i suck and i have not made a great film since Heat and fuck you all 1 stars
7/06/09 Johnny Eager Script poor.. acting good. Hand Held camera has to go! 4 stars
7/05/09 Johnny Mac You can't be serious! 5 stars
7/05/09 pete sampras Mann fails on every level on this one. Overhyped film with average script, mediocre acting 1 stars
7/04/09 Serena Williams Mann's restraint from preaching demonstrates maturity. 5 stars
7/04/09 rafael nadal i'm sorry but this movie fails on trying to say something 1 stars
7/04/09 Andy Roddick Like the bird in the song, Public Enemies is hauntingly dark and mysteriously beautiful. 5 stars
7/03/09 Kermit Crissey not as good as I was hoping 2 stars
7/03/09 roger federer feels like a USA documentary on 1930's gangster life posing as art 1 stars
7/02/09 Ming Johnny Depp was great as Dillinger. An excellent film about the violent time of this period 4 stars
7/01/09 pantera very boring slow ass crime drama 1 stars
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  01-Jul-2009 (R)
  DVD: 08-Dec-2009


  DVD: 08-Dec-2009

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