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Review of Public Enemies

Michael Mann’s latest crime drama follows the FBI’s hunt to capture or kill notorious bank robber John Dillinger played by Johnny Depp. His primary pursuer, Special Agent Melvin Purvis, is played by Christian Bale.

As with some of Mann’s more evocative films—Manhunter and Heat—there is a strong procedural element to perspectives of both the criminals and the lawmen. By doing this Mann brings the audience’s attention to a central theme: the professions of these men and how they are changing. Late in the movie when he finds himself running out of friends, Dillinger discovers his reputation and highly publicized crimes are a detriment to his other criminal allies who require keeping a low profile so the cash flow from their gambling and money laundering operations go undisturbed. They are making more money by keeping quiet and using phones than Dillinger makes in the risky pursuit of holding up banks. Depp does a wonderful job of portraying Dillinger as a man who enjoys the attention and public image his crimes bring, and the audience understands why he cannot let go and change with his profession. Dillinger dislikes the idea of adapting to this new criminal environment because it eliminates the element he enjoyed at least as much as the money: attention. In many ways Dillinger is like an aging showman who refuses to accept the idea his time in the spotlight might some to an end. In no small part, this unwillingness to change with his criminal allies is what dooms him.

John Dillinger

FBI mug shot of bank robber John Dillinger

FBI mug shot of bank robber John Dillinger

On the flip side of the coin is Purvis who seems ready and willing to follow law enforcement into a newer, more scientific era that concentrates on slow and steady police work using the fundamentals of information-gathering and forensics that are the cornerstones of modern police work. While Bale breathes life into his character, he isn’t given as many opportunities as Depp to show his own discomfort with his profession. Purvis dislikes the politics associated with his job just as he tries to shoulder the awkward burden of being the standard-bearer for the FBI, a task appointed to him by J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup who interestingly makes him out to be a man of both grand vision and myopic jealousies). Bale does manage to intimate Purvis’s growing distaste for some of the methods he is commanded to use in the no-holds-barred attempt to bring Dillinger to justice. Purvis suspects too late that he might be making too many moral compromises while fulfilling his duty and has difficulties with many of the men who are ostensibly on his side and the brutality of their methods. He, like the audience, comes to realize that not all the criminals are monsters nor are all the law enforcement agents angels.

The casting works well since the actors have what it takes to give weight to the slower scenes. Mann’s direction comes through best, however, in the scenes of chase and escape. Dillinger’s escape from prison and a later nighttime shoot-out and pursuit through a forest stand out as tense and thrilling sequences where and audience gets a palpable sense of confusion and danger from the on-screen action.

While it may not have the amazing cat and mouse dynamic of Heat, Public Enemies unites the best aspects of a crime drama and a Depression-Era period piece to potent effect. The movie is recommended to any movie-going adults and is a must-see for fans of Depp, Mann, and Bale.

  • John Dillinger - Public Enemy - 1903 to 1934
    John Dillinger was a charismatic bank robber made famous by his signature moves such as the cinema inspired jump over the counter during robberies and multiple narrow escapes from pursuing policeman. In his...

© 2009 Seth Tomko


Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on September 02, 2009:

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Thank you, and you're right. Back-story doesn't seem to feature much into this movie except in a few instances where characters tell one another in passing something from their personal history. I don't know if that's necessarily a flaw in the movie, but it does mean the characters always remain a bit more mysterious than in a movie like Manhunter.

Stevennix2001 on September 02, 2009:

great review. although, i wish they would've gone over john dillinger's life a bit more because i would've like to have known why he fell into a life of crime. Plus, unlike mann's other films, you really don't get a sense of who john dillinger was to be honest with you.

However, i do agree with you about bale 100% though. anyway, keep up the good work.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on July 30, 2009:

I didn't focus on plot in my review because the movie doesn't focus on plot. It is more of a character study of these two professionals on opposite sides of the law and how they cope with changes in their lives. There isn't much of a definitive plot arc aside from Dillinger (Depp) robbing banks and escaping from police and FBI and the FBI chases him. It isn't a movie that is driven by the plot, especially seen from Dillinger's perspective. This is why the cast is so important because if you're not believeing or interested in them the movie will really drag during the many introspective scenes.

AJHargrove from USA on July 30, 2009:

So the big thing here is the cast? What about the plot? How well did that work?

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on July 27, 2009:

MistHaven I hope you enjoy it. The last thing I want is for you to leave the theater and curse me for leading you astray. Just go into it with the midset that Public Enemies is a good crime drama, but it probably won't a film that people are talking about five years from now.

MistHaven on July 24, 2009:

Good review. I was debating whether or not I should go see this movie; it just didn't stand out to me. Now, I probably will go see it.

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