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Monday Review: Public Enemies


'Public Enemies' makes a man out of a legend

Sadly that headline is not a compliment, but it isn't an insult either, it's just a statement of fact. John Dillinger, the subject of Public Enemies, Michael Mann's latest film, is an American legend with about as many rumors and mythos swirling around him Elvis or JFK. He is quite literally a legend, and sometimes bringing a legend down to earth can be quite interesting, but in the case of Public Enemies it isn't.

It's not that Public Enemies is a bad movie, it's just incredibly flat. The film never jumps off the screen at you, and for a movie about one of the most famous bank robbers ever that is not a good thing. Dillinger (Johnny Depp), in case you've missed the plethora of newspaper articles and specials pouring out about him thanks to the film, was an enigmatic bank robber during the great depression who the public cheered and the just developing FBI desperately wanted to catch. The film follows Dillinger and his gang's year long bank robbing spree while Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), head of the FBI's Chicago bureau, desperately and somewhat dumbly attempts to catch him.

However, it really isn't about that at all. For some strange reason most of the movies thrust is devoted to telling the love story of Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) who seem to have had a passionate affair, though most of the real facts point to their relationship being far less intimate than the film portrays it. In fact it might be this fact that makes the film play out so blandly thanks to their relationship seeming solidly out of character to the Dillinger we've all heard about, especially when it comes to the end where the simple historical fact that Dillinger was shot down with two prostitutes (sorry if I'm revealing a massive secret to you) seems to completely contradict the love story of the rest of the film.

It's also disappointing because Dillinger's story truly is legendary. It involves bank robberies, the mob, gangs, J. Edgar Hoover and an immensely interesting early investigation of the FBI all which gets glazed over in light of making Dillinger look like more of a human. In fact Purvis is a far more interesting character, and Bale a far more interesting screen presence in the film, than either Depp or Cotillard, but he, much like the rest of the characters in the film, lacks the chance to really grab the viewer. There's nothing behind the performances, though they are all technically executed. There's nothing behind the direction though it is all very well done, and in the end there is nothing that makes the film any deeper than a piece of glossy paper. In fact the only part of the film which seems to create any sense of depth behind its central character is indeed the part that contains another gangster film that Dillinger is watching (one can always count on Clark Gable).

It's hard to call Public Enemies a bad movie. It isn't going to drive anyone up the wall with poor direction, poor acting or poor anything, but it just seems so coated over with whatever it was that Mann was attempting to do that nothing can jump out at the viewer. You desperately want to be grabbed and taken along for what should be one of the most exciting "true stories" in history, but instead you're stuck wondering why actors as good as Depp and Bale aren't able to make their characters come to life and a director as talented as Mann seems to be dedicated to delivering a man, when he is making a film about a legend.

(I'm disappointed by movies so you don't have to be. Give me some money?)
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About Matthew Razakone of us since 2:04 PM on 04.03.2009

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