Public Enemies

Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Johnny Depp. Christian Bale, Billy Crudup and Marion Cotillard
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Runtime: 139 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Strong violence


There is a tradition of wildness, even of savagery, in US history. Wars, the west, mobs and crime… And these savage societies have been dramatised and explored in films for a hundred years. A question often arose as to whether the movies glamourised criminals and violence. This was a concern in the 1930s with Scarface, Little Caesar, Public Enemy and other films about Al Capone and contemporary gangsters. Towards the end of the 1940s, writers and studios realised that so many westerns had demonised the native American Indians and began to portray more sympathetic portraits. War in the movies has been patriotised as well as being made to serve as a critique of the conduct of some wars. In recent years a spate of films about the war in Iraq have not been popular box-office draws despite the topicality of the films. Which means, perhaps, that films reflect society more than influence it.

All this is a prelude to a review of Michael Mann’s latest film. Mann has been interested in a range of topics for his films, from Manhunter (the first of the Hannibal Lecter films, with Brian Cox) to his biography of Muhammed Ali, Ali, with Will Smith, from The Last of the Mohicans to his thriller, Collateral. And, of course, Miami Vice.

Mann now gives his full attention to the Depression era, recreating it with impressive detail, even a gritty epic style with a solemn orchestrated score and those creations of the Depression, the bank-robbing petty gangsters. Both Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson appear in this film as does Chicago enforcer, Frank Nitti. But the focus is on Public Enemy Number One, the robber John Dillinger. He has been played by many actors like Lawrence Tierney, Ralph Meeker, Warren Oates, Mark Harmon in films about himself as well as appearing as a supporting character in films about Nelson and Floyd and about the exploits of the G-Men and Melvin Purvis. For film fans he is not an unknown personality.

Now he is Johnny Depp. Does having Depp play him glamourise him or his memory? Obviously, Dilligner had to have had charm to have influenced the people he did, to work on prison escapes with which the film opens as well as the robberies – and Depp displays the charm. However, Dillinger was also ruthless and a murderer and Depp is given plenty to do to reinforce this aspect of his character – as well as his being gunned down after seeing the 1934 gangster film with Clark Gable, Manhattan Melodrama.

On the side of the law is the famous G-Man, Melvin Purvis. He is played by Christian Bale in another square-jawed performance, struggling to use his skills with often poorly trained agents. The screenplay gives quite a deal of attention to the workings of the newly instituted Federal Bureau of Investigation with a strong cameo performance by Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover, forcing his ideas on his agents and on government (though not well heard by a senate hearing). Stephen Lang stands out as a veteran and shrewd agent.

The other star is Marion Cotillard after her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf. She is good as the coat-check girl who seems to bewitch Dillinger but who has a mind of her own, willing to be violently treated by the FBI interrogators and to go to prison for him.

Some of the distinguished cast have very little screen time, David Wenham, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi, LeleeSobieski.

What Mann has done with his sweeping style and his cast is to immerse his audience in the era and offer them different perspectives on these, at the time, popular criminal figures.

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