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Movie Review: Public Enemies

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Public Enemies attempts to tell the real life story of the notorious bank robber John Dillinger and his group of cohorts during the last year of his life in the 1930s. Set during the era of the Great Depression, John Dillinger electrified America with daring robberies of banks throughout the Midwest. Dillinger routinely stumped law enforcement and was known as somewhat of a modern day Robin Hood during his time, stealing only a bank’s money while refusing to steal from individual depositors.

The movie begins with Dillinger already famous and relentlessly pursued by the FBI (then called the Bureau of Investigation) headed by a young J. Edgar Hoover. Dillinger is in fact, the most wanted man in America as Public Enemy Number One, when he meets the love of his life, Billie Frechette (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard). Once this is all established, the film proceeds to depict the hunt for Dillinger by the Bureau, and the eventual downfall of Dillinger and his gang.

For those who are expecting a deeply moving and engaging movie in the vein of the traditional crime thriller movie (The Untouchables and The Godfather come to mind), get set for a disappointment. Those familiar with modern history will know that this is a well documented story and will be expecting a true to life biopic, which this film certainly is not. Those who will see the film because of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale will be absolutely delighted. Johnny Depp is a rock star in this movie, and viewers will get to see every angle of his face. However, he performs a perfunctory, robotic acting job here. He gives his Dillinger a cold, unfeeling charisma, and has all the great lines. When he finally breaks down and starts to show some emotion, the movie is three quarters through.

The recently overexposed Christian Bale does a better job at giving his character (FBI Agent Melvin Purvis) some sort of depth, as you can somehow feel the urgency of his hunt; although he seems to be lost in the background of visuals that director Michael Mann has created. Mann is best known for his art-house, showcase style of directing, best exemplified in the 1995 predator-prey movie Heat (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino).

In Enemies, Mann seems to be sacrificing plot and dialogue for the sake of the visuals. For example, shaky hand-held shots are employed throughout the film, and one never gets the feeling of settling down for a good story until the film finally ends. The violence is real and aplenty (whether justified is up to the viewer), the shootouts are loud, the wardrobe is great, the soundtrack is wonderful, and the sets and locations are all spot-on accurate — these are all admirable, but you will not have time to appreciate it all, as the movie moves at a frenetic pace.

Public Enemies doesn’t do justice to the colorful story of Dillinger's real life; nor does it add anything significant to the crime/gangster movie genre; and it is quite disappointing from this angle. Still, this might be an intentional gesture by the unconventional Mann because, despite clocking in at a little over two hours, the movie doesn’t manage to bore you. However, you feel no sympathy for the characters, good or bad, because you really don’t get to know them that well — and this might be a good or bad thing, dependent on your own opinion. See this at your own discretion.

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About Clarence Yu