Public Enemies

Public Enemies is the director’s most daring outing.

By Sean Burns 
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Jun. 30, 2009

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In 1933, after serving a 10-year sentence, John Dillinger was released from prison, and discovered that the world had changed.

That’s pretty much the long and the short of Michael Mann’s enthralling, audacious Public Enemies , a wonky art-house curio disguised as a summer blockbuster. 

This is a weird, alienating movie about a man out of time—a relic from the recent past who emerges hell-bent to wreak havoc on the thoroughly modern present that’s left him and his ilk behind. 

Johnny Depp’s Dillinger is a low-tech, drawling cowboy causing endless headaches for slick, manicured mobsters and college-educated G-Men in a gangster movie that’s also one hell of a Western. 

Pay no attention to those topcoats, Tommy-guns and fedoras, as Public 
Enemies is far more Pat Garrett and 
Billy the Kid or The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford than it is Angels With Dirty Faces . Depp’s Dillinger is every bit as obsolete as Kris Kristofferson’s Billy or Brad Pitt’s Jesse James. 

Living every moment as if it might be his last, Dillinger has no future and no past. He’s the sum total of director Mann’s career-long existential obsessions, only without the usual morbid introspection—there’s only the now. 

It catches up with him, as things do in Mann pictures. Depp flaunts the authorities, but they’ve got technology on their side. A homuncular little devil named J. Edgar Hoover (brilliantly embodied by Billy Crudup) has spearheaded something called the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and he’s got a ton of pointy-headed college boys using newfangled scientific methods—not to mention illegal wiretaps and torture—to bring down outlaw bank robbers.

Hoover’s also got an ace in the hole named Melvin Purvis. Played by Christian Bale with a smirk and distinct absence of empathy, he’s the careerist bulldog who shot Pretty Boy Floyd in the back, and now he has the smarts and tech-savvy to chase Dillinger down. Forget Terminator 4—this is the summer’s Bale movie that should’ve been called Rise of the Machines .

The mob has no use for Dillinger anymore. Giving a tour of a long-distance telephone bunker where numbers-running rules supreme, one of Frank Nitti’s goons explains that whatever hotshot John Dillinger can steal from a bank after months of planning and preparation, they routinely take in during a day. This game has passed him by.

Yet somehow cowboy Dillinger soldiers on, winning over the public with his bratty insouciance, anachronistic brio and everyman appeal. Depp has a naturally conspiratorial relationship with the audience—it’s pretty much impossible not to like him. (But it’s still nice to see Depp layer in some subtlety, working with a movie instead of trying to subvert it.) 

In Mann’s boldest, most controversial stroke, form becomes content in Public Enemies . Dillinger has reemerged into a modern alien landscape he can’t understand, and thus Mann shoots the entire film in handheld hi-definition video. There’s not an establishing shot to be found, or any of the pretty period niceties we expect from pictures like this. The movie looks raw, aggressive and sometimes awfully ugly. 

It also looks wrong —1930s icons are in period dress, yet they’re also in overlit, trembling CNN video, surrounded by inconsistent color-timing and strange blurs from the popping light sources. Somehow this insane choice lends a freakish immediacy to Public Enemies , as if it’s happening right now instead of in the distant past. I spent the entire movie on the edge of my seat even though we all already know everything about John Dillinger at the Biograph Theater and the ending is a foregone conclusion. 

There’s just something startling and crazy about the delivery method, the intensity of Mann’s direction, his bold choices and absurdly violent set-pieces. The Bureau’s notoriously botched raid on Dillinger’s woodsy hideout in Little Bohemia becomes an epic in miniature: pitch-black illuminated except for machine-gun muzzle-flashes, with the unholy sound of shotgun blasts ripping through tree trunks in Dolby Digital Surround Sound. 

Public Enemies is a ballsy, complicated movie. The deliberately off-putting visual style is challenging yet somehow makes perfect sense after you talk it out at the bar for a while afterward. This might be some sort of breakthrough. ■

Grade: A

Movies Michael Mann has directed: Heat , 
 The Insider , Ali , Collateral , The Last of the Mohicans

Movies about John Dillinger: Dillinger 
(1973), starring Warren Oates; Dillinger (1945), starring Lawrence Tierney; 
 Dillinger (1991), starring Mark Harmon.

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1. Shane said... on Nov 16, 2010 at 03:48PM


I am so glad to see somebody finally "get" this movie. I wholly agree with your statement that the movie is essentially a "wonky art-house curio disguised as a summer blockbuster" -- a label that, in my opinion, also fits his 2006 "Miami Vice," which I feel is one of the most misunderstood and underrated American films of the last 25 years. Mann's ONLY downfall is overestimating the mass audience.”


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