[Movie Review] Public Enemies (Theatrical)


So, as you may have noticed, and as I so clearly pointed out in my review, the Summer of 2009 has blown ass. At least in terms of movies. It has been a hollow shell of a blockbuster movie season, with dud after dud pervading our theaters.

It’s to be expected that movies might not quite live up to expectations. However, this summer has been one to absolutely RAPE expectations. Anyone who saw Transformers 2, and read my review knows how I felt about that abomination.

But, today, July 1st 2009, was the day I had my eye on all summer. And purely because of the release of Public Enemies.


Public Enemies is the latest film by acclaimed director Michael Mann. Mann has created some absolutely phenomenal crime sagas, such as “Heat”, “Collateral”, and “Miami Vice” most recently. He is very detail oriented, and always does impeccable research on the films he chooses to be involved with.

When I first heard about Public Enemies, I got very excited. One of my favorite directors (Mann), paired with two of my favorite actors (Johnny Depp and Christian Bale), about one of my favorite historical figures (John Dillinger). In my eyes, it’s a can’t miss movie. I haven’t been this excited for a film since The Dark Knight hit theaters last July.

Public Enemies doesn’t mess around, it gets right into it. There’s no long, drawn out back-story about who Dillinger was. It’s all about who Dillinger is right now, in each moment we see him on screen. And each moment we see him on screen is an absolute treat, because we get the phenomenal Johnny Depp in the lead role.

Depp is so enigmatic that it’s hard to get a real handle on Dillinger at first, and it’s a marvelous approach. This depression era bank robber is calm, cool, and collected. You never really seem him lose his cool, even when he might seem to. John Dillinger always looks to be in control. Kudos to Depp for not going for a flashy performance. He plays Dillinger with grace and brilliance, and it’s impossible to look away from him on screen.

Dillinger starts off in the first ten minutes by springing a jailbreak. He’s robbing banks, he’s getting arrested, he’s busting out, it’s all fascinating stuff. We’re introduced a little bit to his crew, but not too well. I didn’t mind not getting to know his right hand men intimately, because after all, they’re right hand men for a reason.

Billie, played by Marion Cottilard, is a real throwback to a classic movie star’s beauty. She has an innocence when Dillinger first approaches her, but by the end, she seems a little more edgy. She’s doing everything she does purely out of love for John, and her wish to just spend every possible moment together with him. Their relationship felt real. Everything they said to each other was wonderfully worded, and the skill of each actor makes the lines feel genuine and intimate.

Dillinger’s main antagonist is a young authority figure named Melvin Purvis, played brilliantly by Christian Bale. It’s a subtle performance from Bale, who I really hope decides to start doing films like this more often, with characters he can really sink his teeth in to. Purvis is such an important character, that in any scene Bale is involved in feels like there is something very large at stake.

The rest of the supporting cast might feature some names you recognize. Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi, Channing Tatum (who is in the film for seriously, about 7 seconds), and the always wonderful Billy Crudup, who is a real scene stealer in the role of J. Edgar Hoover. If this was a movie about Hoover, and Crudup had more screen time, there would be a lot of buzz about his performance come awards season. It’s up on the level of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. It’s that good.

And, of course, we can’t forget Michael Mann. Mann is one of my favorite directors, and Public Enemies is just another reason why. He has mastered the crime genre, producing gem after gem after gem, and Public Enemies is a new approach to the Michael Mann crime saga. It’s more of a period piece then a lot of what he’s done before, and he really goes all out to authenticate his film. Each detail I saw, from the license plates to the dirt, seemed like it was from1933. But he doesn’t slap you in the face with a lot of needless and pointless pop culture references from the time, throwing in old products and people who were famous at the time. Everything is has it was. I wish more director”s had his attention to detail and his quest for perfection.

The film, at moments, has a documentary feel, and I wish this is something Mann would have explored just a little more. There are a lot of very tight, close up shots of each character throughout the film, and I feel it was most effective when it was taking a step back instead of a step forward, at least in terms of visuals. Sometimes the frame seems crowded, but to be honest, its a minor quibble. It’s still an interesting approach.

The film is paced wonderfully, and I know a lot of historical/biographically based films lose touch with what they want to cover within the movie, and either struggle trying to cram in too much information, or they’re based on just one character, and everything else is second-tier. Public Enemies might be a movie about John Dillinger, but its not only about John Dillinger. There is a lot going on under the surface, especially with the creation of the FBI. It’s in its pre-infancy stages when they movie begins. But by the end, they are starting to figure out their approach to situations, and Dillinger provides them with more than enough on the job training.

There are a number of memorable scenes within the movie, one especially involving Dillinger in a crowded theater, when his picture appears on screen as they urge people to look around them for this wanted man. Dillinger plays it so cool that you would have thought he was in a different time zone.

Another strong point of the film is the folklore surrounding Dillinger himself. I know, being from Indiana, that I was more than aware of stories involving Dillinger. It’s especially effective near the end of the film, the last scene in particular. Everyone, at least myself and my girlfriend, knew what was coming, but it was still amazing to watch unfold on such a grand scale.

Final Words:

It’s not going to be a movie for everyone, I can assure you that. But it’s going to be one that if people take the time to watch as a crime film, instead of a biopic, they’ll be much better off. It isn’t called Public Enemy. It isn’t just about one man. It’s more than a Cops and Robbers movie. It’s a movie about John Dillinger, a rock star like bank robber who shot to super stardom through criminal means, and his demise was just as swift. The movie is top notch all around, but if you aren’t interested in the subject matter, you probably won’t enjoy it as much as I did.


  • Acting is top notch
  • Story is engaging throughout
  • Traditional and fresh at the same time


  • The shaky cam gets a little distracting in one shootout
  • Too many constant close-ups

Score: 9.0/10 (Great)

8 thoughts on “[Movie Review] Public Enemies (Theatrical)

  1. I’ve been pretty surprised by how mixed reviews have been for this movie so far, as I think it looks quite riveting. Though knowing of your Michael Mann hard-on (not meant as an insult) I am not surprised by your praiseful words.

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  3. Went to see it with some friends opening night, it was spectacular. This movie should, and I hope so, do what The Dark Knight did for Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, because come on, Alice in Wonderland looks horrendous.

  4. @ Clay

    The mixed reviews surprised me as well, but I think it’s an example of someone being disappointed with a movie, and mixing up disappointing yet still good movie, with a bad movie. It’s hardly the bad movie some critics made it out to be, and this even factoring in my perpetual Mann-hard on.

  5. You must have been sitting next to some unparalleled bad ass 🙂

  6. So I saw this tonight and I’m sorry to say I was disappointed. For starters, I found the look of the movie to be distracting.The way it was shot reminded me of watching reenactments on The History Channel. Also, I thought they missed the boat by not focusing more on what made him such a folk hero. There was just a five second bit during the first bank robbery and nothing else. There was good stuff, but I expected more from Michael Mann.

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