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Public Enemies 2009 Dir. Michael Mann 9 July 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in Cinema Review.
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Wouldn’t it be great if Michael Mann released a film every summer? After weeks of giant robots, dire cavemen comedies and hate-filled horror it comes as a welcome relief that a director with a distinct and proven sense of style is releasing his latest effort onto screens up and down the country. And while Public Enemies still proves to be the best film this summer since Star Trek, it’s not without it’s problems and it never quite reaches the lofty heights of Mann’s best.

If you’re at all familiar with Mann’s sterling body of work (including two of the finest films of the 1990’s – Heat and The Insider) you know exactly what you’re getting with Public Enemies: two men locked in an epic struggle of good and evil, cops and robbers, right and wrong, but where the line between the two is never as clear cut as you would expect. In Public Enemies those two men are Johnny Depp’s infamous bank robber John Dillinger and Christian Bale’s FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Opening with a breathtaking prison break/bank robbery double punch Dillinger is an American folk hero, a man who steals the bank’s money but not the customers. He is labelled public enemy number one because of this by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) who appoints Purvis, first seen gunning down criminal Pretty Boy Floyd (a pointless cameo by Channing Tatum), to the head of a Dillinger task force – their only purpose to bring Dillinger in, dead or alive.

Unlike Heat the focus this time around is squarely on one character, Depp’s Dillinger – as charismatic and likeable an anti-hero as you’re going to get this year. As expected Depp excels in the role, conveying just the right level of cool menace that we can instantly understand his appeal but never lose sight of the fact he is a villain. Early on he meets Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette and falls for her. Their relationship is at the heart of the film, as not only does it drive the narrative but it provides the emotional core this very blokey film required. Cotillard too gives a tremendous performance, her continental charm and stunning beauty leaving the audience in no doubt why Dillinger would sacrifice it all to be with her. The problem is not long after they meet Dillinger is arrested again and Billie is missing for most of the film, only to reappear briefly during the closing moments. It’s a shame as despite the exceptional quality of the set pieces it is their brief interactions that will really stick in your mind when you leave the cinema.

And talking about the set pieces they are truly stunning. While the bank robberies could never hope to live up to Heat’s centrepiece daylight heist, an early hotel bust gone wrong is riddled with unbearable tension while a night-time forest shootout, paired with Mann’s trademark deafening gun shots, puts you in the middle of the action in a way that Terminator Salvation and Transformers 2 failed to entirely, each bullet and ricochet hitting you like a proverbial thump in the chest.

Two of the main problems are the needlessly complex plot and the bewildering array of character’s Mann has assembled. The performances are universally good (Bale tone’s it down as Purvis while British actor Stephen Graham steals every scene he’s in as Baby Face Nelson), but there are far too many characters with little more than one line cameos (the aforementioned Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, David Wenham, Stephen Dorff, Leelee Sobieski) and throwaway sub-plots that go nowhere, serving only to confuse the audience.

Like Collateral and Miami Vice Mann has also chosen to shoot his latest film on HD video, which worked brilliantly for those ultra-modern action thrillers, but seems out of place here. Proceedings are given a documentary feel quite unlike any other period film, and while it does lend a sense of intimacy and urgency to it all it just looks too clean. This isn’t helped by the fact HD is still no match for 35mm. Quick pans result in motion blur, certain colours looked washed out (perhaps intentionally) and it has the unmistakable look of video, which still just doesn’t look right on the big screen.

Finally it’s worth mentioning the soundtrack which delights and infuriates in equal measure. Mann has had a bit of a tempestuous relationship with film scores over the years with the infamous Garden of Eden conclusion to Manhunter (the best Hannibal Lector film?) being a particular low point. But here he and composer Elliot Goldenthal barely put a foot wrong, with the exception of the bizarre way the music seems to drop out abruptly whenever anyone starts speaking, creating the sense the music is somehow detached from the film rather than being weaved into its tapestry during the creation.

Mann’s best work it ‘aint but up there with the best of the year so far? Without a doubt. With the best picture Oscars now extended to 10 nominations don’t be surprised if Public Enemies creeps in there come February 2010.

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Comments»

1. Omnesion - 12 July 2009

I’ve just created a post on my blog http://dougbond.wordpress.com regarding which Johnny Depp movie’s are people’s favorite’s. I loved “Public Enemies”, but it was hardly his best movie…actually, I tend to think that some of the least seen movie’s he’s made are perhap’s some of his best…”The Libertine” come’s to mind. In any case, let me know what you think and if at all possible, post some link’s on my blog to some interesting Johnny Depp info…alway’s a fan of JD! Thank’s and PEACE! 🙂


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