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Review: Public Enemies (2009)

Public Enemies (2009)

Directed by: Michael Mann

Premise: The true story of bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and attempts by federal lawman Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to bring him to justice.

What Works: The action scenes of Public Enemies are extremely well done and director Michael Mann, familiar to this material with films like Heat and Miami Vice, manages to stage the gun fights in ways that makes narrative sense while capturing the pressure and violence of the event.

What Doesn’t: The main problem with Public Enemies is its lack of substance. The film has no character development to speak of; aside from Marion Cotillard’s role as John Dillinger’s girlfriend, none of the characters have anything to do on screen. Christian Bale’s role as Melvin Purvis is completely ignored and it is a waste of both an actor and an opportunity. The film has a kernel of a much bigger idea, that the bank robberies of Dillinger and his contemporaries gave the government the justification to expand the powers of the FBI, thereby giving law enforcement the tools and the authority to fight organized crime while increasing the power of the federal government. The film also has some moments that raise questions about the distinction between the cops and the criminals. Unfortunately, these themes are only grazed upon by Public Enemies. The film seems entirely dependent upon Johnny Depp to carry it based on his charisma alone.  Although Depp does his best, it is too much to ask an actor to fill two and a half hours of screen time with mugging for the camera. 

Bottom Line: Public Enemies is a disappointment, especially considering the talents involved. Although none of the actors are bad here, the story just doesn’t give anyone enough to do and the film’s finale does not come to a conclusion so much as it just ends.

Episode: #246 (July 12, 2009)