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Movie Review: Public Enemies (2009)

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Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is based on Bryan Burrough's non-fiction book, Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34, although “it’s not 100 percent historically accurate” as Burroughs told Vanity Fair. The film tells the story of the last year in the life of notorious American bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). Out of all the crimes committed, the most egregious turns out to be the theft of the audience’s hard-earned cash because the filmmakers deliver such an extremely boring product.

After breaking some colleagues out of jail in 1933, Dillinger naturally goes back to doing what he does best: robbing banks with his gang. The FBI takes an interest in the Midwest crime wave, in part so the agency can continue to make a name for itself. Director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) assigns Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who recently ended Pretty Boy Floyd’s criminal career, and sends him off to Chicago to work with a group of novice agents.

Dillinger is both crafty and lucky as he evades the dragnet for a time. However, by drawing the feds to Chicago, he gets on the wrong side of local gangster Frank Nitti, who wants to see Dillinger disappear more than Purvis does. Their mutual interests result in a fateful night outside Lincoln Park’s Biograph Theater.

Public Enemies fails on a number of fronts and its two-hour-plus runtime accentuates them. The screenplay and the film should have cut scenes that repeated ideas without moving them forward as well as a few others that were simply forgettable.

One major problem is neither main character is worth rooting for, and some of the fault is because both lead performances are so subdued they border on being flat. Dillinger is shown to be bold and brash, taking what he wants, like coat-check girl, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) who becomes his girlfriend. However, their romance creates no sparks on screen. Purvis suffers from a similar recklessness in pursuit of Dillinger, yet he hardly registers much emotion when his decisions cause his men to be killed.

Dillinger is meant to be a sympathetic figure, but it doesn’t work. During a bank robbery early on in the story, he tells a customer to keep his money because they only rob banks. Apparently this is supposed to be a noble gesture, but it’s really just a PR move that everyone is too dumb to grasp since he is stealing all the other customers’ money. He also never wants to kill anyone during his crimes and quickly turns on cohorts who do, such as his brief yet deadly liaison with Baby Face Nelson.

The film is shot by Dante Spinotti with high definition cameras, which at times become extremely apparent in shots with overly bright light sources, like the flares used by the photographers. More than once the film’s look is reduced to that of a home video, and dispelling the illusion of the moment. This is odd considering the amount of detail that went into the production design to make everything in the film look authentic.

If you are interested in the history of John Dillinger or a good time at the movies, I suggest looking elsewhere.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • Brad Laidman

    I was disappointed in it although I thought Depp was goood

    It didn’t show clearly enough all the innocent people the FBI shot trying to get him

    As for whether he was really stealing the people’s money – the money in the bank was insured by the government (I’m pretty sure) and there was a lot of animosity towards the banks in the depression.

    The movie sort of showed but should have showed more how Hoover spent all his time making headlines with minor criminals while he ignored the flourishing of the mob.

  • “the money in the bank was insured by the government”

    and the government’s money comes from the people.

  • Thanks for the insight El, was gonna go see this because I really like Depp, but maybe I will wait for the DVD release.

  • Sure thing, Christine.

  • WritersBlock

    I recently saw this film and although I agree with some of your criticisms, I didn’t think it was that terrible. Fans of Johnny Depp, like I am, would probably still enjoy the movie. In a larger perspective, there are definitely worse movies out there. Your opinions speak some truth, but are perhaps a little harsh.