MovieMantz Review: ‘Public Enemies'

"Wanted: More Heat from 'Public Enemies'"

"Public Enemies"
Johnny Depp, Christian Bale
Directed by Michael Mann

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The most fascinating part of "Public Enemies" comes at the very end, when it is revealed that Melvin Purvis, the tightly wound FBI agent played by Christian Bale, died by his own hand in 1960. Just three decades earlier, he led the manhunt against John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), the notorious Depression-era outlaw who was gunned down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 22, 1934.

But for the preceding 2 hours and 20 minutes of "Public Enemies," there's no indication that Purvis — the controlled, immaculate, perfectly coiffed cat in pursuit of Dillinger's evasive mouse — had it in him to do such a thing. Come to think of it, none of the characters in the latest crime saga from director Michael Mann are fully defined in any way, save for Depp's charismatic portrayal of Dillinger as a smooth criminal with something of a death wish.

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Then again, Bale's stiff performance might come as a relief after watching him scream his way through his last movie, "Terminator Salvation." But a little more depth would have helped make "Public Enemies" more engaging than it actually is. On a visual scale, it's technically proficient and impressive, but on an emotional level, it lacks the cinematic gravitas to stand alongside classic gangster epics like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Untouchables."

"Public Enemies" is certainly timely — no doubt timelier than Mann, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, likely intended it to be. With the country in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930's, the film takes place during that time, when cash-strapped American's looked upon Dillinger's bank heists with great admiration. But he was still a criminal — especially to FBI head honcho J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who assigned his top agent, Melvin Purvis, to bring him down.

His pursuit resembles that of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Mann's brilliant crime epic from 1995, "Heat," since they hardly ever appear in the same scene together. And like "Heat," "Public Enemies" is stacked with spectacular robberies and narrow escapes. But despite the sharp suits, fedoras and tommy-guns donned by the warring parties, the shootouts become rather redundant without a building emotional connection to the story.

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As it is, the best glimpse into Dillinger's character — beyond his slam-dunk romance to a nightclub coat check girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, Oscar-winner for "La Vie en Rose") — comes later, during the film's most intense scene. Dillinger walks into a police station, which is decorated with pictures of him and other infamous gangsters (like "Pretty Boy" Floyd and "Baby Face" Nelson). Tempting fate, he asks the cops who's winning the ball game being broadcast on the radio. Of course, they fail to recognize him.

If only there were more moments like that. Dillinger wasn't just a rock star to disillusioned Americans — he was a threat to the building regime of organized crime and Hoover's fledgling FBI. "Public Enemies" skims the surface of those interesting and fascinating stories, but it fails to resonate with a lasting impact. As a result, it's a solid movie, but it's not spectacular — and it falls short of Mann's best films, "The Last of the Mohicans," "Heat," "The Insider" and "Collateral."

Verdict: SEE IT!

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