1 July 2009

Movie Review: Public Enemies


Public Enemies
2009, 140mins, R
Director: Michael Mann
Writer (s): Ann Biderman, Michael Mann, Ronan Bennett
Cast includes: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, David Wenham, Billy Crudup, Stephen Graham
Release Date: 1st July 2009

“Public Enemies” is a polished piece of period spectacle and a return to form for maverick filmmaker Michael Mann. Once a darling child of the American film industry, Mann detonated with his repugnantly dull rehash of “Miami Vice” in 2006 and in the aftermath of that monstrosity any audience could be forgiven for approaching future efforts with caution. Thankfully “Public Enemies” is an easy success, a well shot drama with a virtually perfect 1930’s aesthetic. Mann has decided that in this instance character and story momentum are preferable to bleary cuts and hyper stylized nonsense, a selection likely to relieve prospective viewers.

Set in 1933 against the backdrop of the Great Depression “Public Enemies” follows the legendary crook John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), a man who stole millions from banks and eluded capture in the process. “Public Enemies” largely charts the attempts to bring Dillinger to justice led by a newly promoted Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) whilst also interloping into the gangster’s own personal romance with Coat check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). This allows Mann’s film to swing between romantic drama and high octane pursuit, a pair which the director combines to good effect. I was expecting something more along the lines of a straightforward examination of Dillinger the man, but instead the movie serves up the biopic elements amidst a sea of burgeoning relationships and mobster thrills.

Johnny Depp controls the screen nicely in “Public Enemies”, handing out a chilled but highly assured performance as Dillinger himself. It doesn’t rank as one of Depp’s meatier screen incarnations but he channels an efficient and level headed energy into the character, a slightly subdued aura allowing the actor to inject realism into the Dillinger legend. The chemistry between Depp and Cotillard ensures their romance is a moderate success on screen, the Oscar winning actress also applying a layer of finely tuned thespian finish to her performance in order to hold her own. In the middle section of “Public Enemies” this love is somewhat neglected in favour of the thriller elements but ultimately its given decent heat thanks to good acting. As Purvis Bale is unremarkable but ultimately adequate and refreshingly subdued, in the wake of his louder than life performances in “Terminator Salvation” and “The Dark Knight” his turn in “Public Enemies” feels mouse like. He and Depp barely share a scene together and so a definitive dynamic is never built up between the two, but in the few seconds where they square off the actors’ measure up.

The film has been shot using the HD cameras that Mann has come top favour in recent years, meaning that it can’t gun up the same slick beats that some of the directors 90’s output became to reliant on. However the depiction of 1930’s America is flawless and provides a more than ample setting for the gangster flick to unwind in, and in truth Mann’s vibrant blues and metallic hues aren’t something I necessarily pine for. The camera work itself much like “Miami Vice” is at times shaky but with an energetic and exciting story to support this technique it become alot more palatable, some of the robbery sequences genuinely benefiting from this high pressure handhold aesthetic. Visually one can only be relieved that “Public Enemies” is meticulous in its creation of the period rather than in lashings of bright colours and intrusive lighting, even if at times the camera work and sound design feel primitive.

The screenplay is well written and the dialogue at times inspired, the screenwriters maintaining a good momentum allowing the film to translate into a fast paced and adventurous thriller. At 140 minutes “Public Enemies” is a more than a small investment of your time but ultimately it’s highly enjoyable and rewarding, a more intelligent and emotionally primed piece of work than 99% of the summer’s output. The love arc has been well developed and their are well structured moments of Dillinger based insight, even if Mann’s work is more interested in operating as historical escapism rather than an inquisitive character study.

The punchy opening jail brake and numerous gun blazin’ action moments allow “Public Enemies” to get away with its summer release moniker, and certainly it’s intense and at time ludicrously lively set-pieces are preferable to say the CGI addled tedium of “Transformers Revenge of the Fallen”. There are moments of genuine suspense and dramatic tension en route and the chase template which the film unwinds to at its most primary level is high octane and exciting. Mann does know how to generate adrenaline and tension from basic moments of screen paranoia and the fact we care about his characters allows the audience to become actively involved in their fates and ultimately care about a given scenes resolution. That’s an asset big studio pictures tend to neglect.

Anyone interested in the era or in crime should already have their tickets pre-booked but those who enjoy high quality filmmaking are also urged to go out and see “Public Enemies”. It’s not a totally perfect motion picture and at times the earthy technical aspects detract rather than add but on the whole this is satisfying and well intentioned Michael Mann effort. Those chasing the in depth intellectual ponderings of Dillinger might feel short changed but those seeking a well acted and historically accurate thriller will have quite the opposite reaction. Hopefully Michael Mann can keep this standard up because “Public Enemies” is a classy and energetic motion picture.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


Anonymous said...

oh tanis!

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