Michael Mann is one of my favorite directors of all-time as you can see in my favorite movies list. His latest movie, Public Enemies stars two powerhouses in Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in a gangster movie set in the 1930′s. Depp plays John Dillinger, a notorious bank robber who lives openly in Chicago with little fear of being apprehended and is deeply in love with Billie Frechette (Marion Cottilard). His crime spree gets the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) who appoints Melvin Purvis (Bale) as the head of the Chicago office with the main objective of catching Dillinger dead or alive. Purvis soon finds out the reality on the ground of hunting a skilled criminal while Dillinger is seeing his prospects dim as the snare tightens.
The movie has some of your usual Michael Mann quirks such as the intense, fluid and gritty action scenes, interlaced with the notorious quiet and slow-building sequences. As expected, Public Enemies is well written, well directed and well acted. The performances from Johnny Depp and Christian Bale as well as the supporting cast are top notch. Depp gives an effortless and charismatic interpretation of John Dillinger, a character driven by the excitement and ease of robbing banks for a living as well as his romantic involvement with Billie Frechette. Bale gives Purvis his trademark intensity which is almost too predictable but it works… It would be nice to see Christian Bale actually having fun with his character instead of his robotic ultra-intense acting which does get tiresome after a while. Marion Cottilard gives a feisty and steely performance as Frechette but unfortunately, her characters doesn’t get enough screen time after the halfpoint of the movie.The action scenes are excellent with most notably a firefight in a pitch dark forest which we are somehow able to follow. Let’s face it, it’s always a treat to watch a recreation of gunfights during this fascinating era of American history.
The main problem with Public Enemies is that it never really fully grabs the viewer emotionally and lacks that “it” factor that allows movies to take it to the next level. You would expect the movie to analyze John Dillinger but Mann backs away from a character study and the characters never really develop beyond their appearances. Dillinger is portrayed as some sort of populist Robin Hood, which could be argued, but we never get to really see why. He feels that his moment in the sun is about to be over but he never considers retiring before it’s too late. His associates die one by one but we never grew any kind of attachment to them. The romance between Dillinger and Frechette could have been used as the main driver for the movie but it is not. We also do not get a feel for the hardship of the depression era. In all, the movie lacks a compelling emotional driver.
Public Enemies is a technical feast as you would expect from Michael Mann and the compelling performances from Bale and Depp make the movie interesting enough. Nevertheless, Public Enemies feels too superficial and is somewhat lacking in terms of enjoyment and emotional intrigue.
Notes: R-rated for violence and language. 140 minutes