FILM REVIEW: Public Enemies

Newsroom 03/08/2009 | 16:43

Depp plays notorious Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger, the main point of focus of Michael Mann's lavish cat-and-mouse crime film. The cat to Depp's mouse is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the fast-rising federal agent tasked with hunting down Dillinger and his cohorts by J. Edgar Hoover. The movie covers events from an audacious jailbreak in 1933 to the end of Dillinger's life, the timing of which I will not specify in order to avoid spoiling the suspense for any readers unaware of his story. The gangster's various heists, his brushes with the law, spells inside, gang dynamics and love life all feature. Meanwhile, the story also follows Purvis's own endeavours to catch his prey, making the film part Dillinger biopic, part police procedural. It's a lot to fit in, which is reflected in the running time of almost two hours and twenty minutes.

What the movie doesn't offer is any insight into the mind of either man. Recent intelligent gangster movies have dwelt on what drove the criminal – the Denzel Washington character's determination to escape the poverty of his hardscrabble childhood in American Gangster, for example. But here, Dillinger's motivation is left entirely unaddressed. Purvis is even more of an enigma, minus even the standard neglected wife and child that Hollywood usually shoehorns in to illustrate the cop's devotion to his job. Perhaps this is because Mann did not want to attribute spurious traits to real people, which would be reasonable (although the director takes other liberties with authenticity, including changing the robber's last words to something ridiculously romantic and a surely apocryphal scene where Dillinger saunters into the police department dedicated to pursuing him and wanders around in a silly disguise). Whatever the reason, it does leave the film lacking a certain psychological depth.

Another thing it lacks is much edge-of-the-seat drama, which is odd considering that bank robbers' activities are inherently dramatic. Although anyone familiar with the facts already knows the fates of the characters, with a few exceptions the various shoot-outs, car chases and heists do not generate the tension that Mann conjures so expertly in Collateral, Heat and The Insider. At times, events feel a little flat.

Overall, though, Public Enemies is a deft, classy movie, always watchable, despite its few flaws. It is great on period detail, convincingly conveying the atmosphere of the 1930s, with all its jazz, smoky dives, corruption, Tommy guns and fedoras. Visually, it is a pleasure to watch, and not just because of its leading men. Depp is a charismatic, charming Dillinger, whose ruthlessness only occasionally breaks through his pleasant fa

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