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Public Enemies (2009)

Review: written Feb 2010

Flawed but watchable biopic

Public Enemies (2009)

Michael Mann's latest is at least as frustrating as it is satisfying. The story of John Dillinger is told, from the time he was sent back to prison for his second time, through to his ultimate demise. The movie presents a thief versus dogged pursuing cop in a superficially similar way to Heat. Johnny Depp is mesmerizingly charismatic as Dillinger, facing off against a glowering Christian Bale as Melvyn Purvis the FBI agent. However, the tale unfolds in a much more traditional and workmanlike fashion than you might expect from Mann's previous work. The period setting is terrifically presented, as is the rat-a-tat of period armoury. The script however, tells the story in an orderly fashion, not really delving much into the characters or their motivations. The only detour into understanding a little about what was going on in Dillinger's head is a detour into the romance between Dillinger and Billie Frechette, which seems neither long enough to do justice to a terrific turn from Marion Cotillard, or brief enough to avoid feeling like it's been uncomfortably shoehorned in. Christian Bale also plays a straight role, without us ever getting to feel we understand what drives the man.

Public Enemies (2009)

It's entertaining, and has enough prison breakouts, chases and bank robberies to keep you glued for the slightly lengthy running time. However, there are some unusual stylistic choices which do not quite work. Mann has filmed in Hi-Def Digital cameras, eschewing film for the first time. Period movies shot in film have a warmth and softness to the pallet that `feels right' to the eye. Digital cameras have a way of making the action real and immediate, certainly, but so real and immediate it begins to feel like reality TV documentary style. Bright lights burn into the screen, and fast movement feels harsh on the eye in a way that we are used to seeing on the TV screen rather than in a period movie setting. There are times it works to make the viewer accept what you are seeing as real, and not a construct. But there are more times when the digital camera artefacts break the fourth wall and you are reminded this IS a movie set and not real, particularly with the directors penchant for hand held camera for even the most static of dialogue scenes. As a stylistic experiment it is a bold choice - but ultimately one that does not help the movie. On the plus side, the transfer to Bluray is certainly striking, and you are certainly left feeling you saw the movie as the director intended.

So - entertaining, yes. Interesting document of exploits of one of America's most notorious criminals and the birth of the FBI - yes. However, as a piece of cinema it is flawed, and not likely to stick in your mind for the right reasons.

Public Enemies (2009)

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