Perfection narrowly eludes Public Enemies

BY TANNER KOOMAR | JULY 06, 2009 7:20 AM

Film Review: Public Enemies
**** out of *****

Michael Mann directs crime dramas. From the masterpiece Heat to the lackluster Miami Vice and the underrated Collateral, the genre has defined his career — and his career has defined the genre. Mann’s newest project, Public Enemies, fits into his portfolio as counterpart to Collateral — it is good, but it will end up underrated.

Public Enemies follows the cat-and-mouse game between the FBI and its first public enemy, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), one of the most notorious bank robbers of all time. The man who has the task to bring Dillinger to justice is FBI officer Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Then there is Billie Frechette, Dillinger’s no-nonsense girl, played by Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard.

Each of these main actors does a superb job, though Cotillard’s accent does sometimes falter during more intense scenes. Bale fits the character of the chivalrous law man well, even if he is not given the necessary screen time, or proper script, to fully examine Purvis’s character.

Depp, on the other hand, does not suffer this problem. He does a magnificent job showing Dillinger’s personality and inner turmoil using nothing but his eyes — which leads to the understated but incredibly powerful climax of the movie in which Dillinger watches Manhattan Melodrama, a classic gangster film starring Clark Gable that mirrored Dillinger’s life in many ways.

Of course, no Depression-era gangster movie is complete without the appropriate old-timey aesthetics, and Mann’s gift for detail is seen everywhere in the film. Everything in Public Enemies looks and feels authentic, from the cars to the clothes to the buildings. The authenticity is visually captured in super crisp high definition, with much of the color drained. This gives much of the film the impression of being almost black and white.

The only problem with the cinematography — and some will consider it no problem at all — is the use of handheld cameras. During action scenes, some camera shake can add to the exhilaration, but the use of handhelds did get a bit out of hand at times, and it reduced the effectiveness of the technique when it really could have added a lot.

The authenticity of the film wasn’t just visual, though — the sound was incredible. To praise a film for its sound quality may seem strange, but Public Enemies would not have been the same without this sound work. Nowhere is the attention to audio detail more evident than in the gunfights.

Those who have heard a Thompson submachine gun being fired, know it’s loud as hell. And for those who have never been around any gunfire at all, it’s a fact that a bullet makes a different sound when it is going away from the gunman then when it is heading toward a person. This may seem trivial, but it makes a huge difference in creating an immersive atmosphere. Most films use the same stock gun sounds, but Public Enemies makes you feel like you’re right in the midst of the bullets.

All this added together seems to point to a very good film, with just a few flaws. But something about this movie just didn’t add up. It was well-done, but it really dragged, and it felt as though the film lasted an hour longer than it actually did. It also seemed like Dillinger broke out of prison a half a dozen times, when it was only twice. In the end, Public Enemies just missed its chance to become the crime drama of the decade, for reasons that will probably be debated for some time.

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