Public Enemies

Film , Thrillers
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • 3 out of 5 stars
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Public Enemies
Two of the finest actors of their time. The hunter and the hunted. A Michael Mann crime classic. But enough about ‘Heat’, what of Mann’s latest offering? This chronicle of 1930s bank robber John Dillinger and the efforts of J Edgar Hoover’s federal agents to take him out is headlined by a steelier-than-usual Johnny Depp, who convinces as the wily and ruthless thief. Mann’s film is an ambitious fresco of Depression-era America, where a string of armed robberies is grabbing the headlines and prompting a highly publicised crime-fighting operation directed more towards elimination than justice – significantly, new federal powers designed to assist the investigation also threaten the mob’s lucrative cross-country gambling activities.

It’s a fascinating moment in history, and Mann captures the cars, the guns and the buildings with painstaking, immersive authenticity. Then he has cameraman Dante Spinotti shoot it in widescreen digital video (with white-out windows it looks deliberately ‘digital’ too), so creating a ’30s crime flick with an in-the-moment immediacy quite unlike other period reconstructions. We’re right there on the running board as the getaway cars screech down the streets…

Impressive though it is, the film would be more thrilling if we had any genuine emotional connection to the characters. We end up knowing more about the social and political context for the crime spree than we do about the motivations of the key players: Depp’s Dillinger is driven by some generalised desire to escape, his moll Marion Cotillard merely sketched in, Christian Bale’s square-jawed lawman Melvin Purvis implacable in carrying out his duties. Elliot Goldenthal’s orchestral score strikes up to suggest some tragedy unfolding, but we’re just not swept up in it – and the Bush-era resonance in the human-rights questions posed by the feds’ brutal tactics isn’t sufficient compensation.

As in Mann’s ‘Miami Vice’, there’s a worrying feeling that the movie’s just skating over our feelings without really gathering much traction. It’s an event movie, of course, yet as Mann continues to lock himself into handheld DV mode, it does seem as if much of the poise and nuance has gone out of his filmmaking.

Release details

Rated: 15
Release date: Wednesday July 1 2009
Duration: 140 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Michael Mann
Screenwriter: Michael Mann, Ann Biderman, Ronan Bennett
Cast: Branka Katic
Lili Taylor
Stephen Graham
Marion Cotillard
Christian Bale
Shawn Hatosy
Channing Tatum
Giovanni Ribisi
Johnny Depp
Stephen Dorff
Emilie de Ravin
Billy Crudup