Reviews

Public Enemies

4

Michael Mann turns up the heat…

“I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars and you. What else do you need to know?”

What, indeed? The short, fast life of ’30s American gangster John Dillinger is legend: he robbed banks that robbed the public, becoming a media sensation, a Depression-era folk hero and the fi rst Public Enemy Number One of J Edgar Hoover’s new FBI.

After breaking out of every jail that held him, he was chased across America by G-man Melvin Purvis and at last famously shot dead by police outside the Biograph cinema in Chicago after watching a Clark Gable crime fl ick.

We know this. Michael Mann knows this. And, throughout his “true story”, you can’t help feeling that Johnny Depp’s Dillinger knows it too. He’s a dead man walking from the moment we meet him. Meaning Mann’s movie isn’t a biopic, it’s an elegy – one long dying breath. When we do meet Dillinger, he’s already a Tommy-Gun-blazing master criminal, busting his men out of Indiana State Prison and roaring away under an epic blue-sky to a heroic soundtrack.

A better title might have been The Man Who Shot John Dillinger. Like John Ford before him, Michael Mann loves to print the legend, turning cops and crims into duelling demi-Gods. Thing is, John Ford never printed the legend on HD.

Armed with hyper-real, hi-def video cameras, Mann and Heat cinematographer Dante Spinotti make mythic movie-drama look like faux-documentary. This is not American Gangster. This is something else. Something much more startling in which ordinary scenes become electrifying experiences as Mann takes an old story and makes it feel new and unexpected.

Framed in thrilling deep focus, Depp moves through familiar spaces – banks, restaurants, prisons, press conferences, wood cabins, cars, cinemas – that suddenly feel packed with fresh tension and atmosphere.

Despite moving like a getaway wagon, the plot is the least interesting thing about Mann’s latest crime epic. This tale is really about the telling. Beyond the wild chases, daring jailbreaks and bank robberies, much of the movie unfolds in a weird twilight zone between docu-style reality and gorgeous mythmaking.

Long before the breathlessly poignant final moments outside the Biograph, an eerie sequence sees Dillinger walking alone through a deserted police station. Better still is the surreal, funny scene in a packed cinema, where Dillinger sits sweating under the hot lights as a giant image of his face appears on screen while a public service announcement asks the packed auditorium to stay vigilant (“He could be the man sat next to you!”). It might be the movie’s best scene – try finding a better snapshot of the fame game’s seductive danger and dazzle.

Public Enemies gets its coffee-shop moment, too, FBI hotshot Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and Dillinger staring at each other through prison bars in an exchange of sharp lines and even more piercing silences. Initially looking too physically small to play a violent bank robber, Depp fills out the role of Dillinger with effortless charisma, authority and – most important of all – star wattage.

But this is not Heat: we never sink into the life of Purvis or his rivalry with the gangster. Exploiting Bale’s trademark intensity, Mann keeps him a cipher. Same goes for Billy Crudup’s unctuous J Edgar Hoover and Stephen Graham as the sociopathic Baby Face Nelson. Like Crockett and Tubbs in Miami Vice, these characters actually have almost no real personality at all. But as we watch them attack their work with brutal efficiency, we have to take them deadly seriously.

Not least because guns in a Michael Mann movie really sound like guns. Each deafening blam from characters’ pistols, rifles and submachine guns reverberates through your body as if you’d taken the bullet yourself.

Public Enemies’ gun battles erupt with sudden, visceral force – never more so than in a woodland shootout between Purvis’ FBI hit squad and Dillinger’s crew, lensed by Mann at the infamous Little Bohemia Lodge where it actually took place. Hot lead thwacks into tree bark. Desperate breath and muzzle smoke fill the night air. Bodies are wrecked by the carnage.

But as ever in Mann’s world, the real heat around the corner is the romance that’s just out of reach. From Manhunter to The Last Of The Mohicans to Heat to Miami Vice, Mann’s career is a secret string of beautiful, impossible love stories. Here it’s La Vie En Rose Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard as Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie Frechette.

It’s their story that gives Public Enemies its touching, tragic heartbeat, as she and Depp become two lost souls clinging to moments of a freedom they know can’t last. As the man says, “What else do you need to know?”

Verdict:

Call it the anti-American Gangster. And we mean that as a compliment. This superstar crime thriller emerges as something surprising, fascinating and technically dazzling. Don’t expect a Hollywood movie. Expect a Michael Mann movie.

Film Details

User Reviews

    • BenCh

      Jun 24th 2009, 13:39

      Interesting review.

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    • scabo33

      Jun 24th 2009, 16:45

      One of the best Total Film reviews ive read :)

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    • joker16

      Jul 1st 2009, 21:10

      4

      I Just saw it and if this doesn't win Best Picture it will be a crime.

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    • macateb

      Jul 3rd 2009, 13:03

      2

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    • casinoheat

      Jul 5th 2009, 17:44

      5

      Classic Michael Mann. Depp was amazing. Bale was terifying.

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    • SexandHotCoffee

      Jul 6th 2009, 15:14

      3

      a technically good film, albeit a tepid story line, but one long elegy as the review says. Brings an uneasiness to the viewer, knowing that Dillinger will eventually be gunned down. leaving you thinking "yeah, we get it - crime doesn't pay...now what else do you have for me?" Bale's accent is less than believable, although he gives a sound performance as does Depp. in all, the film fails to push the right buttons, for me at least. But viewed objectively, it can be seen as a average film. (hence the rating) 3*

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    • bobbyS

      Jul 8th 2009, 0:31

      2

      I'm really starting to loose faith with Total Film - this film was a real disappointment, the bank heists lacked any sort of thrill the characterisation was shallow and I don’t think it felt at all tragic. The film never really explained why the public loved him so much. The HD for the most part looked great but had moments where it looked amateurish and badly lit. "these characters actually have almost no real personality " you said it TF, but then gave it 4 stars???

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    • maninacan

      Jul 8th 2009, 23:21

      4

      only thing that let this down for me was bale i really enjoyed it would of been 5 stars but for bale all his parts seem to be wooden or overblown histronics

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    • britcitchris

      Jul 9th 2009, 23:35

      Wow, great T.F. review. Can't wait to see it.

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    • captainchod

      Jul 14th 2009, 12:51

      4

      Flawed but hugely enjoyable.

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    • sweaterpuppy14

      Jul 18th 2009, 22:14

      5

      fantastic film. bale, depp and cotillard are at the top of their game here. an interesting review though. 'the characters have no real personality'? what!!! were you watching the same film? the thing that stood out for me was the way i could relate to the 3 main actors; the way dillinger(depp) grows more and more desperate, almost mad; as his gang are whittled down one by one; the way purvis(bale) is suddenly ready to take down dillinger, and how he goes about doing that; and frechette(cottliard), who has to decide whether to trust dillinger or not, and the consequences of her decision. this film is character driven, and if you dont see it, boy, are you missing out on a treat. 5 stars for the film.

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    • mikey2127

      Jul 27th 2009, 22:52

      5

      what is going on, michael mann the director of the story driven, character driven classics, such as heat, collateral, last of the mohicans. the film is about history, a legendary gangster, who yes falls foul of the bullit at the end of the story,but who ever said it was about crime not paying. The story is about a man who lives for the day, trust in who he works with , falling for that one woman who he knows he will still love to the end of his days. Its about an agent who is trying to make it in the world but realises he cant trust the people hes working with and is held back from having what dillinger has even though its what he wants. This film is another michael mann classic and will stand the test of time

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    • MikeyRix

      Jul 31st 2009, 19:49

      5

      Brilliant film. Simply...brilliant. No words for it.

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      Aug 5th 2009, 12:36

      4

      Brilliant film yes, but beacuse of the hyper reallity of it all I suffered huge depression following whaching the movie. Really.

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      3

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      Aug 2nd 2010, 13:59

      4

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      Aug 24th 2010, 15:53

      4

      Overated but still good, the film has one of the best soundtracks evr- ten million slaves. Depp and Bale are terrific and so is the storyline. A lot of fun

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