Movies about gangsters from the early part of 20th century America are nothing new. Filmmakers have been adding one over-sensationalized account after another to the cinematic libraries of Hollywood for decades — with some entries having been made while their real-life influences were still walking about. In recent years, though, the gangster film genre has favored the “modern” gangster types. We’ve seen just about every tale there is to tell about Russian or Irish mobsters with friends or family on the other side of the law, to inner-city Black, Asian, or Hispanic street thugs who race a lot — and let’s not forget those heavy Italian guys that say that say “fuhgeddaboudit” way too often.
The whole formula — as true as it sometimes was — grew old real quick, and people began to get bored. Apparently, filmmaker Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice) must’ve grown bored with the genre, too, since he returned us to our “gangster roots” with Public Enemies, a vehicle based on the iconic hood, John Dillinger, who is played here by Johnny Depp. The story follows Dillinger’s rise to infamy during the Great Depression by robbing banks. The public is impartial to Dillinger’s crimes, and see his actions as a vicarious way of revenge against those who placed the whole country in dire straits to begin with.
But J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup — who, sadly, does not appear in drag while in character) is not pleased at all with Dillinger’s robbing spree, and so he promotes Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to capture the thief, whom they have recently dubbed “Public Enemy No. 1.” And so, while Purvis attempts to get an infantile FBI off the ground and motivated enough to capture the criminal, Dillinger is falling head over heels with a young lady named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). The relationship is as star-crossed as can be, as Purvis’ men narrow in on Dillinger and his pals.
From an aesthetic standpoint, Public Enemies is an appealing film. It plucks some of the classic real-life characters from the classic gangster films of yesteryear and heads them off in an entirely different direction. This story is one more of human drama than action. But there are plenty of action scenes to be found, too — which are quite realistic in nature, and remarkably well done.
All aesthetics aside, though, I found Public Enemies to be a bit of a mess. For one thing, the story didn’t quite meet up with my expectations. The protagonist (Dillinger) and his antagonist (Purvis) only share one scene together, and each actor representing is relied upon to fill in the void during the rest of the movie. Enter the supporting character, or, in this case, supporting characters (plural). Normally, a right-hand man (or woman) for each pivotal role is a good thing, but Public Enemies has way too many characters running around, and the end-result really makes you wonder if Mann didn’t take three different scripts and mash ‘em up. Worse still, Depp looks like he’s bored to the nth degree throughout most of the film, making it really hard to root for him (and Bale always overacts too much to root for).
For history buffs, you will be unhappy to know that the story also has its share of inaccuracies. Granted, it’s more authentic than any other picture about Dillinger you’re likely to ever see, but I thought that there was simply something altogether disjointing about it. Many of the film’s many, many supporting characters weren’t as an integral part of the real-life events — while others were not even a part of them. Nevertheless, they’re all thrown into the fray here, each with their own sordid tale to tell, each wandering about like patients in an Alzheimer’s ward.
But it was the editing that got to me the most. Bordering on neck-breaking or even seizure-inducing, Public Enemies’ ability to relay its already flawed story is sometimes just plain awful. A prime example is a scene where the FBI botches a nocturnal sting operation at a lodge. Guns are fired, windows are blown apart, the doomed are shot, while the damned are forced to flee to find getaway cars. Honestly, I had a terrible time determining who was who and where they were. The fact that everybody looked the same and drove identical-looking cars probably didn’t help any — but the film itself seemed fairly confident it knew what was going on, and so I just leaned back and switched my brain off.
Well, no matter how awkwardly the movie rubbed me (as awkward as that analogy, probably), at least it boasts a glorious High Definition presentation. Universal gives Public Enemies a beautiful 1080p/VC-1 2.40:1 widescreen transfer wherein colors are vibrantly rich, and the contrast is exceptionally notable (the black levels here are particularly unbelievable). Moviegoers and critics alike have voiced their negative opinions about Mann’s filming a majority of the film with high def cameras, and I tend to agree with them: as beautiful as the movie looks, it often looks too pristine for a film set in the early ‘30s — which often takes away some of the believability factor.
Accompanying the feature film’s glorious video presentation is an equally impressive English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack. Dialogue comes through clear and with no noticeable hitches, while the action-packed moments roar through your speakers like a storm (but in a good way). Also on hand are two more DTS 5.1 tracks in both Spanish and French, and an English DVS 2.0 soundtrack. Subtitles are available in English (SDH), Spanish and French.
Special features for Public Enemies start out with a Picture-In-Picture option (part of Universal's U-Control feature) in which viewers can watch the movie along with an assortment of featurettes, including some behind-the-scenes stuff, interviews, and much more — most of which is viewable only via this selection. There's a lot of interesting stuff here for fans of the film who wish to dive deeper. An interactive timeline is also available while the main feature plays, which pops up a few historic events and dates here and there.
Additional special features include an audio commentary with Michael Mann. It's a solo track, and Mr. Mann has a tendency to clam up at times, but it's a good listen for Mann fans and future/would-be filmmakers regardless. Several featurettes ("Michael Mann: Making Public Enemies," "Last of the Legendary Outlaws," "On Dillinger's Trail: The Real Locations," "Criminal Technology," and "Larger than Life: Adversaries") give audiences a chance to look both into the world of Public Enemies as well as the characters that inspired it. All of the featurettes are presented in HD.
A lot of the aforementioned stuff may be considered "filler" to some of you (I was just as ambivalent towards the extras as I was the film). Rounding up the bonus materials are a gangster movie quiz, which ties in the other titles featured in Universal's Legendary Gangsters set (released on home video the same day as Public Enemies). The quiz did absolutely nothing for me, as did the final extra, "Pocket Blu," an application for an iPod or iPhone wherein you can unlock even more special features (I don't own an iPhone and my iPod is one of those little shuffler thingies, so that particular item is completely useless to me.
Frankly, I’m still a bit uncertain about Public Enemies. While it was fun to see Hollywood return to the “original” gangster formula, the film had a number of moments which kept me from enjoying it as a whole. Nevertheless, Public Enemies still manages to come out on top when it goes toe to toe with any other recent gangster (classic or otherwise) features.