Even At 140 Minutes, “Public Enemies” Is Much Ado About Nothing
Being a Michael Mann fan makes this sentence particularly tough to type: “Public Enemies” just isn’t good. This is fairly hard to believe when the movie has so much going for it. It’s a 1930s gangster movie directed by the most testosterone driven, machismo director today and starring two of the biggest male actors alive, Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Unfortunately, none of it adds up and it makes for a herky-jerky, ill-conceived movie.
As I’m sure most people reading this are aware, Johnny Depp is John Dillinger, who in his heyday was almost as well-known as the President of the United States. Christian Bale is Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent assigned to apprehending Dillinger. Since we know that the movie is not going to end pleasantly for Dillinger, the focus has to be on his life and the life of the FBI agents chasing him.
Sadly, that focus is not there, as we barely get to know these characters. For the first time in a very long time, Johnny Depp seems completely disinterested in his character. Apart from one scene in which Dillinger is interviewed by reporters, he lacks charisma to be charming and intensity to be frightening. Depp just sleepwalks through the role of John Dillinger and doesn’t make him compelling at all. One would naturally think that Mann and Co. would want us to be attached to Dillinger in some way, but it just doesn’t materialize.
All the blame cannot be laid at Depp’s door. The script is weak and doesn’t give any of the actors a chance to explain any of their actions. Marion Cotillard plays Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie Frechette and sadly for this Oscar winning actress, she has absolutely nothing to work with in the role. Her relationship and love for Dillinger is completely unexplained. They meet and then, for reasons completely unexplained, she is willing to live her life in hiding with him from authorities.
For all the flaws in this movie, Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis is exhibit one. If we know nothing about Dillinger and his relationship with Frechette, we know even less about Purvis. He is handpicked by Billy Crudup’s J. Edgar Hoover (using a big 1930s voice) to track down Dillinger, but that is the extent of his background. Bale does not have one poignant moment in the film. There really isn’t much to say other than it’s hard to believe that Bale would even accept a role this tiny and meaningless.
There are some positives in “Public Enemies”. Naturally, there are some brilliantly crafted action sequences. Two of which, a jail break and a raid on a country house, make the entire movie worth watching. The gunfire sound is better in this movie than “Heat”, which is really saying something. Also, there is something artistically and aesthetically appealing to a gun’s muzzle flash in the dark of a forest. It’s probably due to the fact that Michael Mann now only shoots his films in HD, which gives the movie a unique look. Every single one of Mann’s films look brilliant so it’s no surprise that this too is visually stunning.
It’s really hard to believe, but “Public Enemies” is boring, pointless, and completely emotionally detached. The movie is a cat-and-mouse game but nobody cares if the cat or the mouse wins. It’s got the same inherent problem that a movie like “Valkyrie” had in which you know what’s going to happen, but that movie actually made you hope that maybe, just maybe, the good guys would win in the end even though you knew they weren’t. In this case, there is no attachment to Dillinger or Purvis so by the time Dillinger meets his inevitable demise, all it truly means is that the movie is over.