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Public Enemies Curiously Average for the Talent Involved

Public Enemies
Directed by Michael Mann
Written by Ronan Bennett, Mann, and Ann Biderman, based on the book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crimewave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934 by Bryan Burrough
Universal, 2009

With the ultra-cool Michael Mann teaming up with the de facto breakthrough stars of the decade, Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, in a movie about gangsters and the lawmen that chase them, Public Enemies appears to be an easy home run.  Mann covered this territory well with 1995’s Heat, Depp has that instant charisma, and Bale has shown his chops all decade…but all three of these people are in a curious holding pattern.

It took an extraordinary long time for Depp and Bale to get to this point.  Depp had always been famous and a heartthrob, but never a guy who seemed to sell a movie or get any kind of respect in the nineties where he did his best work (Ed Wood, Donnie Brasco).  Bale, meanwhile, had a relatively anonymous nineties after being the featured star in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, but there were followers (”Baleheads”), those who had watched him in stuff like Newsies and Swing Kids.  Then, Depp did Pirates of the Caribbean, Bale had American Psycho and of course, Batman, and both arrive in 2009 on a slight decline.  A sameness has entered into their work.  Where Depp used to be someone who seemed to find the very interesting in any kind of role, his risks vaulting his Captain Jack Sparrow into one of the biggest icons in film history, he now sort of gets by on his reputation.  Bale, meanwhile, has appeared humorless for three straight films (including the great Dark Knight) and his tirade on the set of Terminator: Salvation didn’t help matters.  It’s like, lighten up already!

In this story of John Dillinger (Depp), Public Enemies begins with Dillinger’s escape from an Indiana prison and his subsequent re-entry into holding up banks.  The FBI, headed by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) has declared a “War on Crime,” with Dillinger being one of the most wanted men in the country.  Hoover enlists his top agent, Melvin Purvis (Bale) to hunt down these guys, as Purvis is fresh off mowing down Pretty Boy Floyd (in a cameo by Channing Tatum).  This is one of Mann’s biggest strong suits: framing the story.  We find out where these people are in their lives and what leads them into the meat of the action.

Dillinger’s exploits become more difficult as he becomes more famous, and he gets involved with a girl, Billie Frechette (the stunning Marion Cotillard).  Bank robbing is also becoming too risky for the amount of money made.  One of the other gangsters in the picture, Phil D’Andrea (John Ortiz), a Capone stalwart, is running a betting ring where he makes a great deal more money in a safer environment.  I suppose the acquisition of money in this way is very un-romantic for Dillinger, so he ends up teaming with psychopath Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), who makes the bank robberies a little more bloody than Dillinger likes.

There are a couple of very good scenes in here: two great jailbreaks and a gunfight in the woods, and after that we have a pretty basic movie, with no one taking the reins and vaulting this any higher.  Depp plays Dillinger with only a slight bit of celebrity self-consciousness; it would have been nice to see him relish being the bad guy a little bit more.  Meanwhile, Bale goes through his current funk as the “determined law man.”  Had this movie come out at a different time, Bale’s performance might have been viewed as simply solid work, and it is, but it comes right off the heels of other humorless characters and it feels stale.  Also, since Mann is a high-profile director with whom everyone wants to work, there are an endless supply of recognizable actors probably working for scale who show up and are rather distracting.  The character work here is subpar, since I didn’t really care about anybody or whether they succeeded.

Perhaps had this movie been more about the creation of the FBI and their search for all criminals, not just Dillinger, it might have been more interesting.  There is a great scene at the end with Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), a Purvis “G-man” who talks to Billie about Dillinger’s final words that ends the movie on a high note.  If more characters could have been like Winstead, this movie would have been great.  As it is, it’s your basic piece of solid entertainment that could have been so much more.

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