Public Enemies (2009) – Review

3 1/2 Stars

Public Enemies abandons the current iteration of organized crime stories, such as television’s The Sopranos, to instead model itself after the 1920’s and 1930’s era of gangster films. The name itself, Public Enemies, resembles the Oscar nominated, James Cagney starring, 1931 film The Public Enemy. Director Michael Mann captures the time period perfectly.

The story centers around two men, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). The first a well known bank robber with a Robin Hood-esque legend, and the latter an FBI investigator that always gets his man. Neither are what they would seem on paper, both incredibly violent at times but prone to lapses of normalcy.

Dillinger has in his head a certain way of being. He thinks of his robbery crimes as not only a means of surviving, but a way of defining himself to the public. He only takes from the banks and allows the customers who get caught up in the robbery to keep their belongings. He doesn’t condone violence during these acts, as it might tarnish his reputation. Unfortunately his mafia bosses want nothing to do with his high key antics, preferring instead to lay low, running large paying scams under the radar of the law. Purvis is no different. The score is what’s important to him, and if he has to kill instead of catch the crooks, he seemingly has little issue with it.

The most compelling thing about the performances are that we neither empathize with, fear or hate any of the leads. The characters are so well rounded that they all, at one point or another, cross over into each other’s territories. This holds up the idea that the federal government / FBI aren’t all that different from a criminal organization. Rarely can a story be portrayed like this, but this is something that Mann has excelled at for decades. Free flowing characters that exist within a rigid story structure and yet everything comes together in the end as if it were simply meant to be.

After the mis-step that was Miami Vice, Mann redeems himself here. Depp and Bale are mesmerizing in the roles, becoming their characters without a doubt. Dante Spinotti’s cinematography somehow captures the time period with such precision, strangely completely opposite of Road to Perdition in feeling and tone.

Worth seeing for sure. Two men at the end of their lines, legends in their own right. Both succumbing to violent ends on the road to the top.

Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Christian Bale, Johnny Depp

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