Film Review: Public Enemies (15)By Kim Francis
July 08, 2009
Michael Mann is one of those directors whose solid fan base will happily flock to see everything he puts out. And rightly so.
Heat and The Last of the Mohicans are modern classics with The Insider also heading towards masterpiece status and Collateral qualifying as a mean and moody triumph.
His signature style is characterised by marathon running times with an emphasis on music and score as well as on flawed characters. This usually creates a moody atmosphere that is nothing short of compelling.
When some criticised his last effort, Miami Vice, for employing some of the motifs and techniques that others would call strengths, it signalled something of a backlash against the cult auteur. It’s something that looks to have hit home, judging by Public Enemies.
Depicting the life of American folk hero John Dillinger, a Depression-era Robin Hood-figure bank robber, Public Enemies charts the attempts by J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and the FBI, headed up by top agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). They are trying to bring a halt to Dillinger’s lightning-quick raids, aided and abetted by a gang of notorious – and dangerous – criminals.
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In true Michael Mann style, Public Enemies racks up a running time of almost two and a half hours. While it can be justified in his other films, it simply makes this a long, drawn-out tale in which you rapidly lose interest.
One of Michael Mann’s most creditable strengths is in investigating and depicting his characters’ internal struggles. Here, Mann fails to really get beneath the skin of neither the protagonist or his nemesis, Purvis, leaving you feeling unsatisfied and detached.
When Mann pits damaged good guy against baddie with latent goodness, he builds complex characters through his thorough exploration of this classic theme, typical of the Western. His baddie and his goodie are essentially the same person, making for a riveting study of human nature.
In Public Enemies, however, the picture isn’t painted in full, clear relief. Characters are sketchy, without much interrogation into why Purvis behaves as he does, or examination of the demons that might torture him.
Similarly, although there is a touching depth of feeling depicted on screen through the actors’ performances, the relationship between Dillinger and girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) remains unconvincing. There’s little evidence to support why they feel as strongly about each other as we are meant to believe they do.
As the film heads towards its climax, it becomes more absorbing but sadly this kicks in all too late.
But the final scene is simple yet extraordinarily powerful and speaks more loudly than probably any other moment.
Brit Stephen Graham is flawless in his role as Baby Face Nelson and the rest of the supporting cast proves equally dependable.
Contrasted with soon-to-be-released two-part French crime thriller Mesrine, which also depicts the life of a real gangster and is pacy and gripping despite its length, Public Enemies seems more ponderous, while the loud rat-a-tat-tat of the Depression-era guns is wincing.
Let’s hope that Mann ignores the critics for his next film and makes a return to form.