Universal // 2009 // 140 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // December 8th, 2009
America's most wanted.
For most of his career, director Michael Mann has made films and TV series exploring one particular topic: the thin line that separates cops from criminals. From Miami Vice and Crime Story to Heat, Manhunter, and Thief, Mann has consistently examined how the two are sometimes more similar than they would admit. In Mann's oeuvre, cops can cross ethical lines to get the job done, criminals can live by rigidly defined codes of conduct, and both sides realize they need each other to exist. Public Enemies, based on Bryan Burrough's book about John Dillinger and the FBI's central hunt for him, covers identical territory as his previous films. However, the fact that the film is based on the story of one of America's most mythical criminals led many to expect something more in line with Mann's more epic productions like The Last of the Mohicans and Ali. Actually, though there are several spectacular shootouts and action sequences, this is a much more understated and deliberate film than you might anticipate. While some of Mann's technical ambitions clash with the complex script, Public Enemies is a smart and incisive film that deserves to sit alongside Mann's other acknowledged crime classics.
In 1933, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, The Astronaut's Wife), after serving a ten-year prison sentence, embarks on a cross-country bank-robbing spree with help from his associates, including his faithful driver Red Hamilton (Jason Clarke, Brotherhood), cocky lookout Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff, S.F.W.), and murderous hothead Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham, Snatch). He relocates to Chicago, where he meets hat check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose) and falls in love, but struggles to reconcile his new romance with his life on the run. Meanwhile, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, Almost Famous) has enlisted Special Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, Newsies) to use the latest techniques and equipment to catch Dillinger, even as Purvis realizes that doing so may stretch his principles to the breaking point.
Anyone who watches Public Enemies waiting for John Dillinger to make his defining statement won't have to wait long. In an early scene where he's planning a robbery with an associate, he declares breezily, "We're having too good a time today. We ain't thinking about tomorrow." Similarly, when Purvis is introduced by Hoover as the man who will hunt down Dillinger, he is asked how he managed to chase down and kill another dangerous outlaw, "Pretty Boy" Floyd. He responds, simply and calmly, "Through an apple orchard." In those two statements, we get clear pictures of these two men: utterly devoid of self-doubt or introspection, fiercely devoted to their passions, and fatalistic to the extreme.
In every respect, therefore, they were both products of their times. In 1933, the average American was lucky to have enough money to buy food for more than a day, had rarely traveled outside one's immediate surroundings, and knew little of the world beyond the horizon apart from what appeared in movies. In those circumstances, it's not surprising that people of the era, even notable ones like Dillinger and Purvis, had little use for dwelling on big issues and lofty ideals. What mattered was what was immediately in front of them -- what could happen tomorrow, next week, next year, was simply not worth contemplating, since it would most likely be just like what happened today, except possibly worse. That's why these men don't see their occupations as part of their lives -- their occupations are their lives, and they simply can't see it any other way. For Dillinger, robbing banks is his identity -- he's great at it, planning and executing every heist with military precision. Similarly, Purvis hunts down and kills dangerous outlaws without stopping to consider his safety -- he's been given a job, and he's going to do it. By today's movie standards, Dillinger and Purvis may seem curiously detached, but they would fit in comfortably in their era. They also fit in the pantheon of equally single-minded Michael Mann protagonists, from Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna in Heat to Will Graham and Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter to Lt. Mike Torello and Ray Luca in Crime Story.
It's worth pointing this out because one of the prevailing criticisms Public Enemies received upon its theatrical release is that the characters of Dillinger and Purvis are so thinly defined that it's hard to care about them. Watching the film on DVD, it becomes quickly apparent that this condemnation misses the mark. These are three-dimensional men who clearly evolve and change as the film progresses. It's just that their dimensions are extremely limited by their environment, so the changes seem more subtle by the standards of modern films. That's why the Billie storyline is so crucial to the film: when Dillinger falls in love with Billie, he is forced for the first time to consider the possibility of an actual future beyond his next score. It's this realization that makes him embark on progressively more lucrative but riskier schemes and joining forces with Baby Face Nelson, the trigger-happy psychopath he doesn't like, doesn't trust, and suspects (accurately) will lead to his downfall. Purvis undergoes a parallel progression; he initially believes he can track and capture Dillinger solely with determination, smarts, and the burgeoning new science of criminal forensics. As he struggles, however, he realizes he will have to use methods far harsher than he had originally intended. He complies when Hoover orders him to violate the rights of Dillinger's associates and, in one of the film's most harrowing scenes, he consents to treating one suspect with what can only be described as physical torture. Neither character is given to big operatic monologues where they weepily confess how much they've changed, so audiences used to the clumsy writing of most modern action films will feel cheated. Nonetheless, the changes both men go are clearly evident to anyone who's watching carefully, and the film clearly explains how those changes led both men to their climactic final showdown. Given their growing difficulty in accepting the compromises they've made, their shared fate, in retrospect, seems, sadly, all the more inevitable.
For all of Mann's skill as a writer and director, however, Public Enemies wouldn't have the impact it does if not for its cast. Another criticism of the film is that Bale is hopelessly outclassed by Depp, but, again, this is another analysis that has little merit. For one thing, Bale, by necessity, has the less flashy role; Dillinger was arguably the most flamboyant criminal in history, and Purvis, in the manner of FBI agents chosen by Hoover, was bred to be as anonymous as possible. Nonetheless, Bale does get some impressive moments. The scenes where he realizes just what lines he will have cross to extract Dillinger's whereabouts are quiet and understated but no less devastating. Depp, of course, gets to play the cocky outlaw, and does so with relish, but the role is more than just an excuse to ham it up. Depp lets us see that for all his outward bravado, Dillinger is genuinely vulnerable as Billie enters his life and he begins to contemplate an ending, in one way or another, to his current identity. Cotillard's performance is more problematic -- her accent appears and disappears randomly throughout the film -- but she does get her best moments as Dillinger and Billie's relationship begins to unravel. As for the supporting players, all are solid, but Crudup and Graham, as two equally ruthless and unhinged vipers on opposite sides of the law, stand out the most. Their combined performances elevate Public Enemies into a film that, for all Mann's prowess at action scenes, is really about realistic human characters rather than larger-than-life cinematic icons. It's a shame that more people were expecting the latter, but watching the film on DVD makes clear that Mann's restraint makes it a much more rewarding and enduring experience than if he had indulged in a more superficial and maudlin approach.
For this two-disc set, Universal has assembled a decent though not overwhelming selection of extras. The most notable is a commentary by Mann. Fans know that his commentaries are hit-and-miss (Miami Vice was densely packed, Heat sparse and dry) and Public Enemies, unfortunately, is one of his misses. He goes long stretches without talking and isn't as engaged as he usually is. He does have some fascinating insights on occasion, but this not one of his better commentaries. There are also several featurettes: "Larger Than Life: Adversaries" (10:20), "Michael Mann: Making Public Enemies" (20:32), "Last of the Legendary Outlaws" (8:45), "On Dillinger's Trail: The Real Locations" (9:49), and "Criminal Technology" (9:41). These delve into various aspects of the production, from the use of real locations and props to the research into the lives of the people profiled, including even an interview with Purvis' grandson. These featurettes are more thoughtful than the usual EPK fluff, but they only add up to about an hour. Where are the remaining extras? On the commentary, Mann mentions several scenes he cut from the final release; why aren't they included? The only other extra is a digital copy of the film, but really, who cares?
Ironically, though the film's writing becomes easier to appreciate on DVD, it's the more lauded technical aspects that are harder to praise. Mann's conceit of filming Public Enemies in a pseudo-documentary style-with extensive use of handhelds and natural sound-is undeniably original but winds up undermining the film's effectiveness. The jittery camera moves and smash-cut editing make it sometimes hard to figure out exactly what's happening. Dillinger was famous for meticulously planning his heists, choreographing where every member of his team would be at any moment, but it's hard to appreciate his efforts when the film doesn't allow viewers to see anything except bits and pieces of them. The anamorphic 2.40:1 transfer is also awfully grainy, presumably another technique to suggest authenticity. Mostly, however, it's just far too much of a distraction. Even worse, the Dolby 5.1 sound mix is one of the most frustrating ever captured on a major film. Dialogue is too often muted and inaudible while gunfire and ambient sound effects are way too loud. It's deeply irritating that these flaws make Public Enemies a film that you'll have to watch twice to truly appreciate -- not because it's so hard to follow but because it will take you one viewing to get used to the technical affectations enough to overlook them and focus on the actual content. In attempting to make the film as challenging technically as it is dramatically, Mann has ended up outsmarting himself.
Also, on a more personal note, the brief scene where Dillinger and his gang hole up in a hotel in Tucson, Arizona, is a painful misstep for the usually meticulous Mann. The sight of what is clearly a Midwestern hotel on a cloudy day with a big plastic cactus standing in the front, all of which are meant to suggest Tucson, gave this longtime Tucsonan the biggest unintentional laugh in many, many years.
It's clear that Universal made a huge mistake in marketing and releasing Public Enemies as if it was just another summer action blockbuster. It's simply too subtle and complex to compete with the likes of Transformers and G.I. Joe. The film deserves to be watched carefully, letting all of the nuances in the writing and performing sink in to really appreciate just what Mann is trying to do. For all the punch of the brutal action scenes, it's the characterizations and quiet moments that will stay with you after the film is over, and if you can ignore Mann's sometimes misguided technical ideas, you can truly savor them. For anyone curious to see a brilliant filmmaker exploring an important story as only he can, Public Enemies is a must-see.
Review content copyright © 2009 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Digital Copy
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review