Public Enemies guilty of robbery
On paper, Michael Mann’s Public Enemies looks like a sure-fire winner. The director has successfully navigated the
arena of the crime film before, with great success (Thief,Miami Vice). And with two of our best young film actors cast as antagonists, Johnny Depp
as the legendary bank robber John Dillinger and Christian Bale as G-Man Melvin
Purvis, all signs point to this being an interesting entry in the gangster
genre. Unfortunately, not all the pieces fall together as they should and Enemies winds up being a surprisingly dull and repetitive affair that squanders a
Covering the years 1933-1934, the film begins with a rousing prison break as Dillinger orchestrates the unscheduled release of some old cohorts. With the intention of going to Chicago “to make some money,” the Robin Hood-like thief embarks on a crime spree that gets the attention of FBI director J. Edger Hoover (Billy Crudup, giving the film’s most interesting performance) who finds himself on the defensive when the purpose of his newly developed agency is questioned. With his career on the line, Hoover appoints Purvis as the head of a special division whose sole purpose is to bring in Dillinger. However, his efforts are stymied by inexperienced subordinates and a tight-knit crime community.
There are many interesting themes at play that go undeveloped and would have resulted in a far more complex and satisfying film. There’s the notion that Dillinger, like many western heroes, is a man out of step with the times. While Purvis and his men are seen tapping phone lines and tracking down the criminal’s recent purchases in an effort to locate him, Dillinger keeps waltzing into banks and robbing them with a sense of panache and violence that’s unwavering in its predictability. Not only have the authorities changed, but so have his colleagues, as he finds many of his contemporaries have adapted to more sophisticated methods of vice, leaving them richer and with no sense of allegiance to him.
The most curious thing about the film is the fact that Dillinger himself remains a cipher. Depp seems the victim of a shoddy screenplay that provides him with very few opportunities to show us what makes the character tick. While he casts himself as a populist criminal, striking back at hard times by delivering a blow to the banking industry one institution at a time, we never find out why he has this sensibility or feels the need to be adored in the public eye. The film’s best scenes show him manipulating the media to his advantage, a bit of a surprise as he initially does not seem savvy enough to do it. Equally troubling is the relationship between Dillinger and hatcheck girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), yet another underdeveloped plotline that leaves us scratching our heads over the gangster’s obsession with her and her devotion to him.
The film falls into an unfortunate pattern of Dillinger and his boys staging a holdup, Purvis shown in hot pursuit and then something going awry that leads to the crooks’ escape. This brings the sort of pyrotechnic predictability that leads to boredom. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, primarily because it’s easy. Far more difficult are films which attempt to delve into motivations. What forced Dillinger to turn to a life of crime? What fueled Purvis’ obsession with ridding the streets of crime? What made Hoover so determine to succeed? Public Enemies fails to provide any answers and is a lesser film for it, proving to be a run-of-the-mill genre exercise, rather than a cutting edge examination of the criminal mind.