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Review - Public Enemies ***1/2

Watching “Public Enemies” taught me that John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) likes baseball, movies, fast cars, and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), but not as much as he loves robbing banks. Unfortunately, I never learned anything more about him. Public Enemies is a good movie, but wholly unconcerned with its characters.

“Public Enemies” follows famous bank robber John Dillinger through a series of bank robberies in the 1930s and ends with his death in 1934. Dillinger is the best bank robber around, and he knows it. He boasts that he can rob a bank in a minute and forty seconds flat, and may have actually done it—I didn’t bring a stopwatch. Dillinger thinks of himself as a Robin Hood of sorts, and that’s how he wants the public to see him. At one point, he demands that his men return the few dollars they took from a young woman. He’s a celebrity to the people, and invincible in his own mind.

Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is his opponent. Purvis is hired by the Bureau of Investigation to head up an entire division created exclusively to capture Dillinger. He’s highly proficient at his job and knows what it takes to nab a crook. To help him capture Dillinger, he enlists special agents from Texas who resemble outlaws more than Bureau officers.

Depp and Bale play Dillinger and Purvis superbly and without nostalgia. We’re rarely fed insight into how either of them really feels. When they clash, it’s a game of chess. Both play to win, but I’m left wondering if they have deeper convictions.

I’ve been a fan of Michael Mann since I saw “The Insider,” and he never fails to surprise with the projects he chooses and the styles/techniques he employs. In “Public Enemies,” Mann starts with more traditional static and grand shots, but as the violence and intensity begin to escalate, the camera team is replaced by one guy with a shaky hand camera. I don’t mind the “Blair Witch” hand cam used sparingly; it can ramp up the intensity of a shot. However, entire shaky cam scenes like the battle at the cabin end up looking cheap and low budget. For some reason, the color and filters also seem off at times. There were no hand cams in 1934, so it’s odd to watch this way.

The modern camera techniques are also at odds with the prominent use of a classical score (composed by Elliot Goldenthal). Often when Dillinger and Billie share a moment, Mann uses music exclusively to highlight the drama, which isn’t something films do these days. He also uses complete silence a few times as well. Maybe Mann was aiming for over-the-top. Nonetheless, he uses an odd mix of modern and classic styles.

In many ways, “Public Enemies” is a fantastic movie. It is well researched and supposedly an accurate depiction of Dillinger’s final months. It’s entertaining, superbly acted, and beautiful. Unfortunately, I feel no emotional connection with it. Like Dillinger, “Public Enemies” lives in the now. There is no past or future, so when it ends I’m left wondering “what now?”

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