Review: Public Enemies

public enemies onesheetBiopics are an unusual challenge for a filmmaker because the storyline is already set, whether it makes sense and whether we can understand the motivations of the characters or not. As I watched the lush, but violent Public Enemies, I kept thinking that the reason there was no story, no backstory on the characters, and no depth to the film was just this reason: we were being presented with the sequence of events as they happened, rather than a fictionalized retelling that would have dug into character motivations and explained what was going on.

From the first scene, the visual style of Public Enemies was set, and it was gorgeous. In particular, I enjoyed the work of cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who gave the film its sepia palette and a gritty, sporadically neo-realistic feel. Some scenes were stand-outs as beautiful examples of the art of filmmaking, and coupled with a terrific musical score that featured period jazz, I think Public Enemies is one of the best produced films so far this year.
The two leads in the film, Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, are two of the most popular leading men in Hollywood. This has its pros and cons, of course: since they are such recognizable faces it can be hard for us as the audience to see the role they’re playing, rather than them as a character in the story. To his credit, Depp does splendidly in his role as Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger. Christian Bale doesn’t do much at all with his role as FBI agent Melvin Purvis, however, but that’s partially because of a weak script.
At 2 hours, 20 minutes, it’s also a marathon of gun fights, all too infrequently punctuated with quieter scenes where they plan heists, or when Depp woos the lovely Billie Frechette (played by Marion Cotillard).
It’s a good movie. Not a great movie, but a good one.

The film that I had in my mind when I watched Public Enemies was the gritty, but entertaining The Untouchables, directed by Brian De Palma and starring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery as FBI agents out to break the mob’s stranglehold on Chicago, with Robert De Niro as Al Capone. Hopefully you’ve seen it, because it’s a great example of how to intertwine the backstories of the characters in what’s essentially a similar biopic with the action sequences. By the end of The Untouchables we have a sense of the motivation behind both the good guys and the crime capo, Al Capone.
The role that was least developed in Public Enemies was unquestionably that of Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Melvin Purvis. We never met any sort of family, never witnessed him explaining why he’s in The Bureau to a fellow agent, and never really cared much about him at all. Frankly, Bale is a fairly stoic actor which works well in some roles (he was very good in The Dark Knight) but not so good in other films where we never get a peek behind the mask.
Without an understanding of the protagonist, we’re left sympathizing with the bad guy, John Dillinger, who is portrayed in this film as the cliché gentleman thief. Twice we see him taking off his overcoat and draping it around a woman (one a hostage!), and once while robbing a bank he finds that a bank customer has dumped his money on the counter. “You can keep that money, sir, I’m here to take the bank’s money, not yours” he explains.
That’s the basic setup of the film: Dillinger as the gentleman thief, Purvis as the stoic FBI agent. Other characters play parts, including Pretty Boy Floyd (played by Channing Tatum), J. Edgar Hoover (played without any emotion at all by Billy Cruddup), and, briefly, Baby Face Nelson (played by Stephen Graham), and of course Dillinger’s love interest Billie Frechette, but none of them are particularly important to the story.
One of the important events that was happening during the last year of Dillinger’s life and his eventual murder was the expansion of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the creation of the law that made it a federal crime to engage in criminal activity that crossed state lines. Personally, I think it’s a fascinating story and wish that director Michael Mann would have woven more of it into the film.
Having said that, I have to also say that the film is too long, and for all that the cinematography is terrific, there’s at least one shoot-out scene that’s bewildering in its “flashing gun muzzle” style that should have been cut way down or even perhaps pulled out of the film.
One huge difference between The Untouchables and Public Enemies is also that in the former, the cops and criminals are both portrayed as smart and dangerous. In the latter, however, FBI agents are frequently shown as fools and dangerous simply because they’re stupid, while the criminals seem to live a somewhat charmed life, able to enjoy public places without any risk or fear.
I expect that Public Enemies will do very well at the box office and be another hit for Johnny Depp. It’s a good film, it’s enjoyable and it’s lovely to look at and listen to. In a year or two, however, it’ll be “that film Depp did between Pirates and Alice” and “that film Bale made between superhero roles”.

2 comments on “Review: Public Enemies

  1. Not to nit-pick, but in The Untouchables, Kevin Costner plays a Treasury agent (that is part of the wonder…a money guy nailing Al Capone), and Sean Connery is a Chicago foot cop (also important, because he never wanted to sell out and was left at the lowest possible rank).

  2. Awww jeez, Cooper, you’re exactly right!! Mea culpa. Still, whether they’re Feds or treasury agents, my comment stands about the character development of the good and bad guys in The Untouchables. (btw, if I recall correctly, it was treasury agents and cops that were pulled together to create the FBI, so by the end of the film Costner and Connery might well be G-men anyway).

    That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it, coppa!

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