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Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)


     With Public Enemies, Michael Mannís moody gloss on the myth of famed bank-robber John Dillinger, the director once again frustrates, failing to synthesize his distinctive, action-driven style with what should be weighty subject matter. Attempting to reinvent Dillinger as a figure for our times, Mann saddles his film with high-definition digital photography, handheld camerawork, and stark, natural lighting. These choices conspire to downplay the period aspects of his story, but they leave the film looking too harsh to be transporting, or even involving. What results is a biopic that works overtime to stymie audience expectations, offering sporadically successful grace notes from moment to moment at the expense of a satisfactory overarching narrative drive.


     There is a plot in Public Enemies, even if it stretched to the breaking point over two and a half hours. The script spends half of the run time establishing Dillinger as some sort of untouchable rebel, embodied by Johnny Depp, who plays a mixture of moroseness and flair. Then, beginning with a scene in which he sustains a gunshot wound, the screenplay slowly chronicles Dillingerís descent into oblivion. As Public Enemies wears on, Dillinger is stripped of accomplices, hideouts, glamour, and his organized crime connections. His slow and steady move toward obsolescence lends a funereal tone to the film, which Mann capitalizes on visually.


     Mann oddly downplays Dillingerís status as a media sensation here. Only obliquely does he expose us to the full brunt of Dillingerís fame. At the same time, there seems to be a latent assumption on Mannís part that his audience is entirely familiar with Dillingerís exploits. Many of the famed anecdotes about his life in crime are elided. Itís an attempt, like much of what is on display here, to tone down cinematic contrivance, but itís not a wholly successful one. The ambiance that Mann uses to fill the void is inconsistently deployed. There are strong moments, such as final set piece, in which Dillinger shares a pre-death moment of recognition with Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama, but they tend to be the exception to the visual and auditory murk that define most of Public Enemies.


     Mannís pet themes are present, but they feel obligatory most of the time. Deppís Dillinger is torn between his existential angst and his romantic aspirations. This tension is most elegantly symbolized in the moment where Dillinger opens his pocket watch and gazes upon the twin faces of time and the woman he loves. Heís stared death in the face, and recognizes it as his only possible fate, yet he still plots an impossible escape. This tension is unresolved, yet it is not enough to make Dillinger into a full-blooded character. His foil, Christian Baleís G-Man, Purvis, is shown similarly facing death down, yet he is given no romantic solace. When a postscript informs us that heís died at his own hand, it has the effect of unbalancing the morality of the movie. Dillinger is held up as an object to be fetishized, but Purvis is seen as lacking. Heís not celebrated for sacrificing his personal life in his pursuit of Dillinger. Heís made the butt of some cosmic joke that values brooding above all else.


     Other of Mannís typical grace notes are similarly botched. A romantic interlude, in which Dillinger and his girlfriend are serenaded by an anachronistic Diana Krall doesnít intoxicate like similar scenes in Ali or Collateral. Deppís movements in his robberies, as he vaults over bank counters or shimmies behind a car, seeking cover, arenít balletic. They are merely abbreviated. Mannís terseness in his action scenes doesnít increase the portentousness of the verbal sequences that surround them. They just make the rest of Public Enemies feel bloated. When Dillinger dies, the slow-motion, CG-generated special effect and ostentatious camera angle employed look terrible and exploitative. Worse of all is Mannís emphasis on Deppís figure. He strives to make him look cool, posing him like a model, constantly undermining the realism that his handheld style is designed to achieve.


     Public Enemies traffics in the accumulation of detail at the expense of a big picture. Mann hopes to amplify his small moments into the grandiose through a process of withholding, but his flamboyant filmmaking calls too much attention to itself for the sublime to emerge. Dillingerís ungoverned attitudes and aimless life are supposed to paint him as some sort of poet, but itís difficult to embrace a worldview that so wholly celebrates such a figure, especially when that figure is so sketchily drawn. Itís tempting to chalk Public Enemiesí incompetence in presenting Dillinger up to Mannís disinterest in conventional movie characters, yet this movie is filled with endless expository scenes with dialogue that is too cute and contrived to accept any such reading. Instead, Public Enemies stands as a failure. It squanders talent, becoming, much like Mannís Miami Vice, the sort of empty, distancing bloat that gives both art and genre films a bad name.



Jeremy Heilman