"Public Enemies" is a missed opportunity

July 6, 2009, midnight | By Masha Lafen | 15 years ago

Johnny Depp and Christian Bale provide the thrill of a chase and not much more

When it comes to summer movies, fans tend to value high speed and high explosives over moral insight and character development. Accordingly, an action film about an infamous Depression-era bank robber starring Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard and Christian Bale should seemingly enthrall summer masses. But although Director Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" is a well-executed, fast-paced film, it lacks the firepower to truly deserve blockbuster status.

Based on Bryan Burrough's novel by the same name, "Public Enemies" follows the notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), a man labeled "Public Enemy Number One." Dillinger becomes a feared national crime figure to law enforcement officials at the Bureau of Investigation, which later becomes the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Bureau of Investigation, sends the determined agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to track down Dillinger, and the two-hour cat-and-mouse chase that typifies the movie begins.

Perhaps the main reason for the film's downfall is that the main antagonists lack personality and remain stagnant throughout the film. Depp portrays Dillinger as a cold, businesslike criminal - a subdued role when compared to his flashier and more suitable role as Captain Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean." In Public Enemies, Depp is stone-faced and unruffled as he wields his machine gun and collects his loot, and he remains unfazed in the face of his pursuer, Melvin Purvis. Dillinger's personality is so unremarkable that it is believable that he would be able to walk through small town theaters and even police stations unrecognized. Purvis, Dillinger's constant shadow, is a patient and unrelenting predator who does not give up his hunt for Dillinger throughout the film. Like Dillinger, Puris's personality is understated, to put it mildly.

If there is any plot development worth noting in this film, it is in the parallel development of both the institutions of organized crime and the institutions of organized crime fighters in Depression-era America. The film depicts the 1930s crime scene transition from one-man bank jobs to organized mafia crime as well as the transition from small-scale law enforcement to the powerful Federal Bureau of Investigation with nationwide jurisdiction. Mann provides this intriguing and welcome slice of history amidst all of the guns and money.

"Public Enemies" makes an attempt, albeit a feeble one, at portraying humanity as well. The film takes place in the 1930s during the Great Depression, at a time when Americans valued criminals like Dillinger for robbing banks that had left people penniless. As such, Dillinger has a subtle Robin Hood persona. He occasionally leaves money for the common people at bank-teller windows, but this aspect of Dillinger's personality is downplayed and much too restrained to elicit a strong emotional investment from viewers.

Ultimately, the film will appeal to those who desire a traditional cops-and-robbers movie in a historical setting, But if not, keep your money in the bank…or well away from it.

"Public Enemies" is rated R for gangster violence and some language. Now playing in theaters everywhere.

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