Public Enemies (Michael Mann) 2009

Public Enemies is about the heyday and fall of John Dillinger.  Its 1933, the country is in the midst of the Great Depression, and Dillinger is a kind of folk hero for robbing so many banks.  J. Edgar Hoover sets up a special task force headed by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to capture Dillinger and his associates.

I love Michael Mann’s work.  Heat is one of the best crime movies period, Collateral was exciting, and I even think Miami Vice is great (and yes, I can defend that one).  So I’m a little sad that Public Enemies was a real let down.  I was sitting in the theater frankly bored, and it was during the movie I was actually pondering why I wasn’t connecting with the movie.

I believe its because the movie really doesn’t have a central conflict or main story arc.  Take the story of Heat for example.  The main conflict was this group of thieves trying for one last score before retiring.  On the flip side, we have a dedicated cop trying to figure out what this group is trying to do and thwart their robbery.  In the meantime, we really get to know not only DeNiro’s character but Pacino’s character.

In Public Enemies, the story just kind of meanders.  Stuff just happens and there is no build up or tension with what occurs.  Dillinger will rob a bank, then take a vacation, rob a bank, go on a date, go on another vacation, rob another bank, etc.  On the flip side, when Dillinger robs a bank, Purvis has a scene where he says “We really have to catch him”, he will rob another bank and Purvis will say to his guys they need to catch Dillinger, etc.  Stuff also happens and there is no explanation for why it happens.  I am not spoiling much when I say pretty early on Dillinger gets captured by state police.  But we don’t get any explanation for why they find him.  He robs a bank, his gang gets away clean, he goes to a hotel, and for no reason whatsoever cops come in and arrest him.  Its like the editor sneezed with the scissors in his hands and accidentally cut 5 minutes explaining that.  My brother and I just exchanged a WTF glance at that scene.  There are also motivations at the end by Dillinger (which I dont’ want to spoil for anyone) that are very confusing.  But as I said, the movie doesn’t really have focus on one big job and kind of meanders around with no real depth.

Now that wouldn’t be such a big deal if we connected with and learned a lot about the characters but we don’t.  Both Depp and Bale play static character concepts: Dillinger is a care free “I do it for the kicks” bad boy robber, and Bale is your strict “law and order”/”at any costs” lawman.  The actors both play their parts well, but there is nothing we connect with.  We don’t learn anything about these men or what really drives them.  The dialog is stiff and uninteresting, and nothing they do is compelling enough for us to root for one or the other.

The only part of the movie I was really liking was the digital photography.  There is a gunfight scene at night at this country cottage which was fantastic.  Digital photography is great for low light scenes and I like the way Mann uses it also in Collateral and in Miami Vice.

There are so many pieces which on paper say this movie should be awesome: Bale, Depp, Michael Mann, gangster movie.  But its surprising how lifeless and uninvolved this movie is.  Public Enemies is not a bad movie, it is a “meh” movie.  The biggest sin is how forgettable this movie is.  This will fade out of collective memory pretty quick.  I would hold off on watching it until rental or maybe matinee if you are desperate for entertainment.


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