IN SHORT: WHEN SHOULD YOU SEE THIS MOVIE? If you love the 1930s golden age of crime, bank robbers, John Dillinger, or just great gun fights, then go see this at the theaters. It is better than anything else out right now, especially Transformers 2.
The 1920s/30s would be an exciting time period to live in if you’re involved in crime. It was a time full of gangsters like Al Capone, Baby-face Nelson, Pretty boy Floyd, and of course John Dillinger. These criminals were more famous than celebrities and lived like kings, if only for a short while. This was also the birth of the FBI, and the police weren’t afraid to use brutal tactics to punish lawbreakers. So brutal that folks like Dillinger were revered as heroes to the public, a modernized Robin Hood.
Director Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice) tries to do this time period justice with his new film Public Enemies. It focuses on the most famous bank robber, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), and the FBI agent charged with hunting him, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). This film covers only the last year of Dillinger’s life, but it is by far his most interesting year. Dillinger escapes from jail, twice, and commits dozens of bank robberies with the likes of Baby-face Nelson and John “Red”
I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way, Public Enemies is not as good as other gangster movies like Scorsese’s various films or Mann’s own Heat, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Johnny Depp is once again brilliant in his portrayal of Dillinger, and it also helps that he looks spookily similar to the man. It is quite obvious that Mann chose not to make this yet another romantic legend of Dillinger, but instead it’s almost a documentary focusing on showing what the famous robber was really like. An example of this is that unlike the urban legend of the “lady in the red dress”, she was actually wearing a simple white shirt with an orange skirt. He wasn’t a peoples’ hero stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, but a cunning thief and a cold blooded killer. Mann also quickly establishes that Dillinger cares about nothing except what is happening at that moment, like he says in the film, “We are having much too good of a time today to even be thinking about tomorrow.”
Michael Mann continues to show his prowess at creating extraordinary gun fights, and there is a shootout about every 15 minutes. The sound mixing is so well that it feels like they are shooting old Thompson machine guns right next to you. The sets are also extremely detailed and accurate, and Mann even filmed the famous gunfight in the Wisconsin forest in the exact spot where Dillinger fought off and escaped the FBI, but it’s hard to see these things because the movie is paced like Dillinger’s life, fast and loud. It’s also worth noting that the entire cast does a great job in this movie, especially Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard.
It’s almost like a double edged sword for Mann, focusing on the facts and not the legend, because he had to sacrifice good character development and script. Almost all the other characters and their relationships in the movie seem really frail, since they lack scenes that help set up who exactly they are. The main relationship between Dillinger and his girlfriend Billy (Marion Cotillard) seems really forced and is difficult to connect with. As accurate as the movie is, it does change a few famous deaths around to fit in the movie (since in real life they were killed after Dillinger), and this doesn’t work well. At the end it makes Dillinger seem a little weak and all alone, instead of the powerful criminal mastermind he actually was.
Overall, Public Enemies isn’t perfect, probably won’t get an Oscar best pic nomination like some were hoping for, but its still a good flick. Unlike the other hyped summer movies like Terminator Salvation and Transformers, this is actually one film that I want to see again.