Public Enemies (Johnny Depp. Christian Bale, Marion Cottillard, Billy Crudup) — Director Michael Mann (The Insider, Collateral) creates morality plays with the best of them. His film, Heat, with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Tom Sizemore, Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd and other stars was one of my favorite films of the ’90s. It portrayed a band of high-stakes thieves against the crack L.A. detectives out to get them. Not only was it exciting, riveting drama, it also showed that the two opposing teams were very much alike – equally obsessed with no life balance. The line was blurred.
Public Enemies plays the same theme. There is no doubt that John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) was a bad, ruthless, egocentric guy. He has few redeeming features just a De Niro’s character in Heat. And there is no doubt that Melvin Purvis(Christian Bale) is ambitious, possessed and obsessed with Public Enemy #1’s capture just like the Pacino character.
What makes this movie different is the period in which it is set. In the midst of the Depression in mob-filled Chicago, Mann can explore the pure good versus evil of the day. Dillinger and others like Baby Face Nelson (who is depicted here, too) robbed banks, which were not beloved yet held enormous power. Mobs were feared yet they were also the public’s voyeuristic means for getting back at authority. The Untouchables plowed this same ground extraordinarily well.
Public Enemies weighs in at two hours and 20 minutes. And it feels like it. Mann is good at action sequences and, indeed, the shootouts between Dillinger’s gang and the cops are good. Unfortunately, this doesn’t have the pacing of either Heat or, say, the Bourne movies or the recent The Taking of Pelham 123. Shorten this by 30 minutes, and you’re there. A little less self-importance would help, too. Depp is deft as always but he seems more preening here. This was the first Depp film where I always thought I was watching Johnny Depp, not his character. His love interest, Billie Frechette, is played by Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. She gives the best performance in the film yet I couldn’t help but have the feeling that Mann realized she was tangential to the story. Of course, Heat had the same relationship between De Niro’s character and a love interest played by Amy Brennaman.
Most of we old folks know what happened to Dillinger but the moviegoers who will make this a hit or not probably don’t. I suspect this film will under-perform. We’ll see. It’s a big budget counter-punch to the Transformers and Harry Potters of the summer – a film aimed at mature adults who like morality plays. I definitely could have liked this more than I did. The acting is very good and the film in fine. But it is not great and will be easily forgotten unlike The Untouchables. I’m glad I don’t critique movies with a star system because I think I would be perplexed. I want you to see this film to find out if you’re as conflicted as I.