MOVIE: Public Enemies (2009)

I’ve never been much of a Michael Mann fan. His movies always seem sort of the same to me — heavy focus on manly posturing, not enough focus on the things that make characters interesting.  Like, for example, their character.

I thought this movie MIGHT have a shot at being different, though, because it stars Johnny Depp, who has rarely failed to impress me (speak not to me of Secret Window), and because a movie about John Dillinger seemed pretty aptly timed, given the current state of American finances.  I wondered how Mann might try to connect the two — how he might portray Dillinger as a product of his time, and, in so doing, posit that we might be driving some of our own most troubled of souls in the same direction.  Something to that effect anyway.  Something sort of timely and interesting.  Or, well. . . I don’t know what I expected, exactly.  But I do know this much:  I didn’t expect this movie to suck quite as much as it ended up sucking.

The film opens with one of John Dillinger’s famed escapes from prison, this time busting out not only himself but several members of his gang.  From there, it takes us through the thirteen months that came in between that escape and Dillinger’s death, through a series of pursuits, near-arrests, deadly gun battles, and his codependent relationship with a young woman named Billie Frechette (played by Marion Cotillard).

There are, as is often the case with these types of movies, two separate paths for the story — one is Dillinger’s path and the other is that of the man trying to catch him, a young FBI agent named Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), hand-selected to lead the Dillinger task force by none other than J. Edgar “Don’t Call it ‘Vacuuming'” Hoover himself.

Now, here’s where things get kind of complicated.  I can see where Michael Mann was trying to take this movie, I think.  There’s a long history of movies about famous criminals that all sort of work the same way — The Untouchables and 3:10 to Yuma both kept springing to mind while I watched this one, for example.  In those films, both the good guy and the bad guy are broken down into pieces for the audience.  We start to understand what it is that drives the hero — what makes him work so hard to stop the villain, regardless of personal cost.   On the other side, we are shown the true nature of the villain himself — he might be vicious, he might be cruel, he might rape, rob, or steal, but deep down inside, he too is just a man with a history.

We usually end up with roughly the same epiphany at the end — the two men on the two sides are actually the same man, but for circumstances that drove them in opposite directions.  Reminds me of that line from Capote:  “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”

I could tell from early on in the picture that Mann had no interest in taking Public Enemies in that direction.  A few elements of Dillinger’s childhood are touched on lightly — he reveals his mother died when he was young and his father used to beat him, for example.  A few elements of Billie’s past are also briefly lit, in an attempt, I gather, to show us the extent of her vulnerability and explain why she would become so loyal to John, and so quickly.  And maybe something here and there for Purvis too — an agent in so far over his head even treading water seems fairly futile most of the time.

But that kind of stuff is not the actual heart of this movie.  Instead, this movie is just about . . . well. . . shoot-outs and cool cars, I guess.   Instead of sticking to the formula, Mann shook the formula off with a bitchy temper and then sort of forgot to put something back in its place.  So, what we’re left with is a bunch of running around and violence, with a few little laughs here and there (I’ll confess I did love it when John walked right into the Dillinger Task Force HQ and asked what the score of the ball game was), and almost no substance whatsoever.

Did I want the same old movie?  I don’t know — maybe I did.  But I would’ve settled for something else if only it had had any intensity or power whatsoever.  I mean, even Depp seemed like he was bored a good 9/10ths of the time.  There was no spirit to his role or anybody else’s — there was just nothing.  Nothing.

Go for the scenery if you plan to go at all.  Good looks are all this movie has going for it, I’m afraid.

[Pre-queue me at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Drama, Action
Cast:  Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard, Christian Bale, Channing Tatum, Stephen Dorff, Billy Crudup, Giovanni Ribisi, Emilie de Ravin, Leelee Sobieski

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6 Responses to “MOVIE: Public Enemies (2009)”

  1. Liz Says:

    I was really hoping that this one would be good. I, also, thought it would be a natural for Johnny Depp, whom I’ve come to like quite a bit. I’m concerned about your comments – mostly because they seem to make a lot of sense, but also because I heard somewhere else (I forget where) that this movie is somewhat disappointing. I’ll probably still rent it, though, because a) It will probably interest my husband, and b) I’m a sucker for an interesting cast (I.E. Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, Emilie de Ravin, etc).

    Speaking of casts (good segue, huh?), I just saw “The Reader,” and I had totally forgotten Ralph Fiennes was in it! Nobody mentions his work – and I thought he was excellent! He’s a much more interesting actor than his brother! I also really liked the whole movie, and thought that Kate Winslet really deserved the awards she won. From what (little) I know of how the Nazi party “brain-washed” so many of its members, I can understand Hannah’s seeming lack of remorse. The other issue really surprised both me and my husband, but it worked so well, and was well handled.

    Looking forward to your write-up on the latest “Harry Potter” – I have a bunch of opinions on that one, too!

  2. megwood Says:

    I didn’t really interpret Hanna as having been brain-washed at all, actually. But that’s an interesting way to look at it. Glad you liked the movie!

    Definitely take your husband to see Public Enemies and then let me know what you think!

  3. Lorraine Says:

    I totally agree about “Public Enemies”. I must have checked my watch a dozen times because it was so tedious. There was no character setup and no character development. So many characters came and went without any real purpose. I didn’t think it was possible to create such a boring movie with Depp and Bale.

    The only fun I had was identifying the myriad of actors as the characters came and went.

  4. alisaj29 Says:

    I LOVE myself some Johnny Depp, I could watch him making a movie, about him watching paint dry, so I may have to see the this movie anyway. And as much as I’m not a fan of Secret Window, I think it mainly sucked because it was a Steve King Film.

  5. Trip Says:

    OK, just got back from seeing this, so here’s my testosterone-soaked perspective.

    (Quick note: I just barely missed the local showing of Moon, which sold out literally the moment I stepped up to the counter, damn it all to hell…come to find out it was a special screening with the director, son of Bowie, Duncan Jones in the house to do a Q-n-A after the show. F*CK! So I had to go with Plan B here.)

    First off: Michael Mann does not disappoint in the shootout department. The sound in particular was outstanding, or perhaps it was just the theater’s speakers…but each gunshot and tommy burst was like a punch to the gut (and eardrums). The primitive man-ape in me approved.

    Second: Marion Cotillard is the 2nd cutest French actress of modern times.

    Third: the art direction and cinematography were top-notch. The film looked authentic – almost too lavish in places. In the scene where Dillinger’s holed up in the motel in the woods in Wisconsin, there’s a spiffy glowing Zenith radio in the background…no way could a backwater lodge afford a device that pimpin’ (for its day of course).

    I liked Billy Crudup as Hoover, and thankfully, this film shows restraint enough to not slip some sly crossdressing reference in.

    Meg’s right about the vaporous substance here…you won’t learn anything new about crime, the FBI, the Depression, Dillinger, etc. In fact, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking the Depression wasn’t so bad after all, seeing how everyone, including the cops and coat check girls, dressed to the nines and went to swanky bars every night.

    There were times throughout the film where I thought to myself, “This is basically Heat: 1933“. The bank robbery scenes were cut and pasted straight from that flick, even the line “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours”.

    So yeah, I guess the point of the film was style rather than substance, but I was still entertained. Thumbs up for me.

  6. megwood Says:

    Heat: 1933 — right on, man. So true!

    Moon is excellent. Duncan Jones, nee Zowie Bowie, was at the screening I went to (Seattle International Film Festival) and is a really cool guy. Looking forward to seeing what he does next!

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