a critiQal film review Public Enemies (2009)

  • DVD
  • Blu-Ray

Plot: Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger's (Depp) charm and audacity endear him to much of America's downtrodden public, but he's also a thorn in the side of J. Edgar Hoover (Crudup) and the fledgling FBI. Desperate to capture the elusive outlaw, Hoover makes Dillinger his first Public Enemy Number One and assigns his top agent, Melvin Purvis (Bale), the task of bringing him in dead or alive.

651 words (Est. Reading Time 3m 15s)

At long last, a Michael Mann headed to theaters I actually wanted to see: Public Enemies. With Johnny Depp playing notorious gangster John Dillinger and Christian Bale playing FBI agent Melvin Purvis hot on Dillinger’s tail, it sounded like something worth seeing. Seeing the trailer only reinforced that notion in my head, and I eagerly awaited seeing Public Enemies in theaters.

Unfortunately, summer passed and I didn’t have a chance to see Public Enemies, and had to wait for the DVD. Of course, December always seems to be a busy month for us, and I didn’t get a chance to rent the film on DVD either. Thankfully, as January comes to a close, I was finally able to snag a few moments to watch the film.

Would the long wait be awarded with another Heat-like epic from Mann, or was I destined to witness another disappointing Collateral (2004)?

Depp, as usual, is compelling on-screen as John Dillinger. His good-natured appeal almost contrasts with the crimes he commits, but Depp plays them all together the viewer will never have any doubts as to the validity of the character – or Depp’s ability. He’s charismatic in any role he plays, and as a “good ol’ boy” type of gangster, he seems a perfect fit.

Bale isn’t allowed the same depth of character that’s given to Depp, and so comes off as standoffish and a bit aloof to the viewer. He seems dedicated enough, but aside from a vengeance killing sequence, his never makes his real motivation known to the viewer. Instead, he’s a straight-forward G-Man, providing the audience with more of a standardized version of an “honest cop”, rather than a memorable character unto himself. Sure, he shows compassion in points, but it’s almost entirely needless, as it seems more to fit in with that type of role rather than with any underlying beliefs on his part. In other words, he’s decent enough, but largely forgettable since he’s never able to emotionally connect with the viewers.

With that lack of a powerful antagonist to Dillenger’s views, Public Enemies plays as yet another romanticized version of the exploits of the legendary gangsters of the 30’s. They were – and still are – able to capture the imagination of the common folk, becoming legends in their own time – and far beyond.

The film so romanticizes the era, it makes viewers question even today the exploits of the FBI, rather than the criminals themselves. With the FBI using methods that include torture and coercion to capture the “bad guys” without even trying to explain why they were resorting to those methods – even including shooting down “Pretty Boy” Floyd in the back without showcasing any of his crimes – the audience will easily find themselves siding with the gangsters rather than the typical good guys.

Did the FBI go to extremes to capture these sociopaths? Maybe so – but unlike other gangster films, the gangsters in Public Enemies are seen as good-natured guys going after a corrupt – and rather inept – government, but leaving the common folk alone. A depression-era Robin Hood, in other words – although many forget that these hoods didn’t exactly give back to the poor – and lots of innocents were gunned down amidst the ferocious gun battles they waged with law enforcement.

Still, without trying to rely too much on actual history, the film has an excitement to it the viewer will find themselves easily becoming involved with. After this film, what viewer couldn’t imagine flirting the law like Dillinger with such calm and affability they become national heroes, rather than villains?

Although it’s lack of a strong antagonist makes it fall behind Mann’s earlier Heat, Public Enemies brings an escapism viewers should relish, allowing them a brief glimpse of the more glamorous side to the gangsters of the 30’s, and the notoriety they enjoy even to this day.

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