REVIEW: Public Enemies

140 Minutes // USA // Universal Pictures
dir. Michael Mann
Thursday, July 2nd, 2009 – Cineplex Odeon Orion Gate
starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale & Marion Cotillard

Being the first film of the summer season that I was relatively excited for, Public Enemies couldn’t have come any sooner. After many lackluster cinema goings in the past month, this film had very little in terms of competition for the “best movie of the summer” (as of now at least).

Michael Mann’s latest feature in Public Enemies stars Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. For the second straight feature he chose to utilize the HD Camera for the entire duration. However, unlike Miami Vice this film doesn’t benefit from the in your face blatant use of the cameras. Although they do capture footage in a new and innovative way in terms of angles, this adds very little to the feature – and what is added through the cameras is quickly taken away from the terrible misuse of soundtrack. Repeatedly, the film blares high frequency or low pitch tones to collaborate with the scenes at hand. Unfortunately, these scenes are not all that interesting to begin with and the flagrant reasons for the music choices – whether they be 30’s music that relates to the story in progress or the score written by Elliot Goldenthal – are easily seen through like a transparent mask hiding the shameful face devoted to manipulative purposes. Needless to say, this isn’t Mann’s best effort to date.

Still, this isn’t the films biggest concern – the technical aspects, that is. Unfortunately, the problem is much more serious and deeply rooted and has been since the first step of the film. I am, of course, talking about the script. For one, the film lacks structure and complexity – it does for John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) as Shattered Glass did for Stephen Glass. For those unaware for the back story of John Dillinger, you will be lost from the first moment the film starts. I’m not saying that him being a criminal won’t be clear, but rather what drives him. There is never a mention as to why he robs banks – his Robin Hood-esque demeanor is surprisingly absent from the feature – and who he really is beneath his mask. In addition to this, there is not one suggestion of why John Dillinger is robbing banks only – even when people are willfully giving him their money during heists.

Another example of muffed up scripting is Dillinger’s legacy. When no one knows of him in bars and restaurants, but he claims he is a man of the people and then suddenly there’s some crazy reaction from the public at the end of the film when Dillinger meets his fate creates a triangle of contradiction and laughable plotting.

Relationships – both romantic and casual – are thrown into the mix for nothing more than furthering the plot and come off contrived and empty. The painstaking path the film takes to show Dillinger at his most human – in a phrase, “in love” – adds nothing to the story, reeks of tacked on characterization (that is never explained a bit!) and creates an unnecessary reason for prolonging the film. If they wanted to make his romance with Billie Frechette (Marion CotillarD) and fiery passion for love and her anything substantial, they could’ve made it resemble something plausible or human. Thanks to the context and weight of the relationship, Dillinger’s scenes with Billie are the worst the film has to offer. In doing so, this weakens both of the performances by the two all-star actors, and (Lord forgive me) in turn, causes Marion Cotillard to produce the worst performance of her young career. Laughable.

So rather than getting all angry at the poor structure, lack of substance and clear attempts at creating something memorable for aesthetic reasons, I took it as an film solely meant to entertain and it did succeed fairly well in that aspect.

The story is about John Dillinger and his life from 1934 onward. Trying to catch him is newly appointed head of Chicago police forces Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) who killed Dillinger’s pal – or was he? The film never suggests anything of the sort – Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum in a 10 second role). The two only exchange dialogue once throughout the course of the 140 minute film and hold no compelling report together. Rather, it’s just a usual tale of cat and mouse.

The most interesting aspects of Public Enemies are the films involving violence. Not to be shallow, but those are clearly Mann’s forte. Without much music, the scenes rely on the crisp and crackling sounds of screams, footsteps and fired bullets. Very thrilling scenes and Mann should’ve taken a page from himself and allowed the film to rely on itself and the general atmosphere it creates rather than tacking on a counterproductive score.

One of the most primary issues the film had was John Dillinger as a whole. He’s played perfectly fine by Johnny Depp, but the character itself is quite blown-up. He is a moist and suave fellow, but beyond that you’re left to guess about him – but since the film is almost two and a half hours long, you’d expect him to by more than surface character. Due to the lack of sincerity and depth added to Dillinger, I found myself rooting much more heavily for the antagonist in Mr. Purvis. In a supporting role, the film speaks more volumes of the man on the hunt for Dillinger than it does for Dillinger itself. If this was the intention of the script, I have some serious queries. Plus the way the trio of writers perform fellatio on the infamous gangster is more explicit than your run-of-the-mill porno.

The film is admirable in its attempts to mix quality, quantity and entertainment in one package, but it doesn’t. Rather, it comes off quite cheesy and unnecessary as a whole. On the bright side, it is pretty entertaining – apart from when it takes itself seriously – and the cast is great. Bale turns in his best performance to date as the conflicted Melvin Purvis and the other supporting males are quite good. However, the primary issue of Public Enemies is that it knows what it wants to accomplish with Dillinger coming off as the best criminal in the world that everyone loves, but it never even comes close to that landmark.

Oh, and the ending was f-cking stupid. [7/10]