Public Enemies centers around the capture of John Dillinger, a notorious bank robber who, during the great depression, became known for robbing banks, killing police officers and escaping prison (twice). The movie picks up well into Dillinger’s bank robbing career just prior to the time when he’s killed. Dillinger is portrayed as suave, confident, organized and admired by those around him (he was thought of as a Robin Hood of sorts). He’s consistently on the run and hiding out as he’s wanted on a federal level for his crimes all which took place during the development of the FBI headed up by J. Edgar Hoover.
Michael Mann is at the helm on this one both directing and contributing to the screenplay. The screenplay is pretty well written with much of the emphasis placed on Dillinger, his exploits and escapes in addition to Dillinger’s relationship with his girlfriend, Billie Frechette. Unfortunately the story falls a bit short in terms of character development but keeps things moving with action and some controversy with an FBI subplot in the background. This was a time before the internet, cell phones, etc., so tracking down criminals was much harder which made Dillinger’s rampage a bit of an embarrassment for the police and the government. The FBI’s formation and their efforts to catch Dillinger add a nice dynamic to the film and while this helps make up for some of the slack, it’s also one of the contributing factors to not having enough time for character development.
There’s some great talent in here with Johnny Depp playing John Dillinger, Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover, Christian Bale portraying Melvin Purvis (the man who brought down Dillinger) and Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette. The cast is rounded out by Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff, Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Lang and others. All the talent give solid performances, unfortunately the only one that gets to really get his hands into his character is Depp as the others get some on screen time but not really enough to appreciate the depth of the person they’re portraying. Crudup as Hoover is one of the more compelling performances but Bale doesn’t really get to assert himself that much with Purvis as his on screen segments are kind of short and on the move. Same goes with most of the other characters as the focus lies mainly on Depp’s Dillinger.
The visual style is interesting since Michael Mann has fully embraced high-def in lieu of film, which gives the movie a more “real life” quality, almost documentary-ish. This style tends to make you feel a bit more like you’re there rather than being removed watching in your living room. The set and costume design are spot on with the 1930’s time period; it’s especially impressive considering the scale of this project.
The movie is a little long (140 minutes) but for the most part goes by at a good pace. If you’re into historical/period piece movies and can appreciate gangster films, you should give this one a try.
reviewed by Sean McKnight