Posted by: steveonfilm | July 6, 2009

Movie Review: Public Enemies

I’m a huge Michael Mann mark. I mean huge. I’ve got all his movies. I’m working on getting all his TV shows (just picked up Crime Story). And I was really excited to see how he was going to approach the legendary bank robber John Dillinger, and the FBI agent who took him down, Melvin Purvis. I got even more excited when I saw that Johnny Depp and Christian Bale were cast as Dillinger and Purvis, respectively. Then I saw the movie. And while it was good, it certainly wasn’t great.

I’m going to throw this out there, maybe you’ll agree, maybe you wont, but I don’t think anybody does gun fights as well as Michael Mann. I don’t care if it’s HEAT, Collateral, or Miami Vice, Mann just brings a level of realism to them that I don’t think any other director does. Gun fights in other movies seem like something out of a video game, Michael Mann gun fights seem like something you’d see on the news or in documentary footage. Real gun shot sounds. People running out of ammo. Stuff getting torn to shreds. I think they’re just bliss. And there are plenty of them in Public Enemies.

But gunshots don’t make a great movie, characters and story do. And while I thought the characters felt realistic, I found myself just following them through an intense part of their lives. I never got a real feeling that I understood why they were doing what they were doing. I never got to find out what caused Dillinger to choose a life of crime. Why he pushed the edge and risked it all every time. Purvis never came off as more than just a career law man doing his job and taking advantage of a promotion. I didn’t feel like he really had a vendetta against Dillinger, some deep down reason inside to take him down. I’m not taking away from Depp or Bale either. They were fine on screen, they just didn’t have the material to really hit a home run here. If anything, I thought the dynamic between the two of them was safe and by the numbers.

I think a lot of my problems come down to just liking the movie HEAT so damn much. Dillinger and Purvis have a similar set up to that of Neil McCauley and Lt. Vincent Hanna in HEAT. The criminal and the uber cop charged with taking him down. On top of that you’ve got two of the top actors of our time in Public Enemies, Depp and Bale, much like you did with two of the top actors of their time in HEAT, DeNiro and Pacino. I just loved the dynamic between McCauley and Hanna in heat, their face to face conversation, their one up man ship, their both knowning that one of them was going to end up killing the other…I wanted to see that in Public Enemies. And maybe that was a problem.

HEAT was fictional. Public Enemies is not. It’s based on reality. History. Actual events. And while “based on a true story” leaves an amazing amount of room for dramatization, some people stay closer to the source material than others. In this case, I think Mann stayed pretty darn close. Maybe too close. I’m not sure. But I’ve never used the word accurate to describe a movie before, that is until I saw this one. It seemed accurate. Like there was little deviation from what actually happened. I didn’t feel like there was dramatization. Creative liberties. This was a by the book presentation of the events sped up to fit in their alloted time.

And, again, this is NOT a bad movie. This is a good movie. A solid movie. The supporting cast was all great. From Billy Crudup playing a young J. Edgar Hoover who is obsessed with establishing the F.B.I. as an institute of superior science and intelligence, to Stephen Dorff as Homer Van Meter, Dillinger’s right hand man and loyal until the bitter end. Marion Cotillard was solid as Billie Frechette, Dillinger’s love interest, and I can’t wait to see more of her (evidently she’s HUGE in France). I also popped pretty hard when Don Frye showed up on screen. I don’t care what that guy does, but he can look totally badass just standing there picking his teeth. There were plenty of other great actors and actresses in the flick, which is actually something of a downer, since there were SO MANY characters a lot of them were blurred and drifted into the background more often than they should have.

Maybe there was just TO much. To many characters. To long. To much attention to detail. To historically accurate. I’m not sure. But something prevented this from being a great film, and it certainly had the subject matter and talent to be one. Again, I’m not saying this wasn’t a good flick, because it was, I’m just disappointed it wasn’t a great flick. Public Enemies is well worth the price of admission and I’m glad I went to see it. If only for the glorious gunfights alone.

Enjoy.
-Steve

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