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Movie Review: Public Enemies
July 15, 2009 · By Mitch Cyrus
A man's got to know his limitations - "Dirty" Harry Callahan ("Magnum Force")

If you see me start off with a line like that, you'd probably be guessing that I'm about to slam a movie.

I'm not.

I use this quote as I feel that director Michael Mann has taken this phrase to heart.  Mann is a fantastic director of intense, male-dominated action movies.  "Miami Vice" (both the superior TV show and the not-that-horrible movie), "Collateral", "Heat", "The Last of the Mohicans"; all pulse-pounding action.  Even his "brainier" movies are intense.  "Ali", "The Insider", and "Manhunter" may have been more character driven, but they were still of the same terse, forceful style of the others.

Mann's limitations?  Getting more than a few centimeters deep inside of a character.  Sure, he gives a good sketch, and if an actor is talented enough, you can see them flesh it out a bit more, such as Will Smith as Muhammad Ali, Russell Crowe in "The Insider", Daniel Day-Lewis in "The Last of the Mohicans", and even Tom Cruise as the enigmatic killer in "Collateral".  But other than perhaps William Peterson in "Manhunter", Mann is all about the Action.  He wants his men brave, daring, focused, and driven.  Anything other than that is just gravy. 

Mann knows his strengths; and he knows his limitations.  Accordingly, we get to see both on display in his homage to 1930s gangsters in "Public Enemies".  The movie is intelligent, thrilling, and fascinating to watch thanks to the director and some great acting from the likes of Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Jason Clarke and Stephen Graham (you may note the absence of a certain name here.  More on that later).

What you get is a great period piece with some incredible representations of some larger-than-life historical figures.  What you don't get is any in depth insight into what made them tick.

I think Johnny Depp tries to show a bit more of Dillinger than we've seen before, but there just isn't time, as he's too busy shooting up everything in sight (there is more ammo spent here than you'd see in a Schwarzenegger double-feature).  But while we may not know what made Dillinger into the daring bank robber, Depp makes sure we understand why he was as popular of a figure at the time as he was.  Depp shows a man that in other times could have made a name for himself as a charismatic televangelist or a politician; full of personality and knowing how to manipulate people.  Dillinger was ruthless, and had no qualms with murder, even if it wasn't his first choice.  But his targets were the banks; not the people of the Midwest, already beaten down by the Depression.  In an early scene, after emptying out as much of the safe as he could carry, Dillinger passes a scared customer who offers out the contents of his wallet to the famed criminal.

"Keep it.  I want the bank's money.  Not yours".

It was that combination of style, brains, and daring that made Dillinger such a remarkable character, and Depp shows each one of those characteristics in spades.  Therefore, even though this is a "summer blockbuster" type film, do not be surprised if Johhny Depp receives an Oscar nomination for this part.  It was that good.

Too bad the same thing cannot be said for Christian Bale as G-Man Melvin Purvis.  Not only does Mann fail to provide any real background information on the famous lawman, Bale gives as robotic of a performance as he did in "Terminator Salvation".  In fact, at the end of the movie, a post-script gives information about the fate of the real life Purvis that I had forgotten.  It stunned me somewhat as Bale had not shown anything about the man that might indicate that he was the type that would take this action later on in life.  Bale is too good of an actor to have this happen...so did he mail it in, or is he the type of actor that demands a better written character and the right director to get it out of him?

For the story itself, I really thought that Mann was trying to give a non-judgmental point of view of the two protagonists.  Dillinger was shown as much more of a common thief than his Robin Hood persona, even if he was completely charming, while Purvis was shown as a dedicated, but flawed lawman.  I am assuming that this was done so that they audience could watch events unfold without "rooting" for one or the other based upon biased storytelling.  If so, it didn't quite work out that way, because you had a super-nova of charisma in Depp, and a black hole of one in Bale.

Fortunately, the movie predominately focused on Dillinger.  As mentioned, the action sequences were excellent, and Depp played off well with Jason Clarke (Tom Caffee in the superb Showtime series "Brotherhood") as his best friend Red Hamilton.  And for once, Mann has some success with the romantic part of it due to the chemistry between Depp and Marion Cotillard as Depp's girlfriend Billie Frechette.  You would normally expect the guy/girl scenes in a Michael Mann movie to be just some throw-away filler time to allow for the audience to catch their breath in between action scenes; but Depp and Cotillard are electric as two people rising above their poverty stricken upbringings to revel in the excitement, fame, and money involved in their lifestyle.

Secondary characters also make up for some of the deficiencies in the character (acting) of Purvis.  Billy Crudup was marvelous as J. Edgar Hoover.  This had to be a tough role, as Hoover is now almost universally viewed as a disgusting figure based upon the revelations of both his hypocritical personal life, and his later disregard of the law when it came to the war protests and civil rights movement of the 1960s.  Crudup and Mann don't shy away from it, as Hoover's long time "companion" Clyde Tolson is shown, but they don't sensationalize it, either.  What Crudup shows is Hoover in the early stages of his career; a high strung, opinionated, highly dedicated and ambitious public official determined to deal with a wave of crime throughout the country.

Which is another historical point that Mann makes very well.  Despite the romanticized versions of these real people, Dillinger (and especially his gang), Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the like WERE very bad people.  And they were able to get away with their crimes for a long time due to the lack of cooperation between various counties/districts within a state, or between states.  Hoover's efforts, aided  by Purvis, brought about a more scientific approach to law enforcement, as well as an increase in centralizing the efforts to fight crime.

I applaud the effort, and I very much enjoyed the movie.  As always with these types of "historic" films, I end up complaining a bit about the writer and/or director playing loose with the facts (Melvin Purvis did not kill Pretty Boy Floyd), but for the most part, Mann got it right.  And it may just turn out that his "limitation" is his greatest strength, as once again, as with the aforementioned Smith, Crowe, Day-Lewis, and Cruise, he has gotten an incredible effort out of a great actor, making for a thoroughly watchable movie.

My Rating: Frank Ryan (3 footballs).

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