5
Jul
2009
Review: Public Enemies
Public Enemies
Jordan
The idea of watching one of America's most successful and infamous bank robbers of all time engage in a game of cat and mouse with the fledgling F.B.I. sounds to me like a movie idea with almost limitless potential for success. Throw in some acting heavyweights like Christian Bale, Johnny Depp, and Marion Cotillard, and Public Enemies was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. So it is with a heavy heart that I report most of that anticipation went to waste.

I'll start with the good stuff: the film was shot on digital, which makes the cinematography scintillating in every action scene and stunning in its moments of subtlety. Of course, the price audience's pay for handheld digital is the occasional shaky camera, but this effect is minimalized here and on the whole, the cinematography is stunning. Of course it doesn't say much for a movie when its greatest point is the cinematography, but this truly is a beautiful film to watch.

Another high point to be found is in some very colorful supporting performances. Billy Crudup is excellent as J. Edgar Hoover. He is simultaneously fascinating, hilarious, and a little revolting, and I found myself wishing the movie was more about his rise than Dillinger's eventual fall. Stephen Graham is also very good as George "Baby Face" Nelson, nailing the accent and the manic delusions of grandeur while also having fun with the role. If more of the actors in the movie had followed Graham's lead, the results would have been a sight to be seen. Finally, Johnny Depp (who did seem to be following Graham's lead and enjoying the role) plays Dillinger as an incredibly charming figure"”darkly humorous with a mischievous grin always flickering at the side of his lips. He doesn't always have a lot to work with, but Depp works the angles of the role like the champ he is, bringing humor, and moral relativity to a film that seemed destined to avoid both.

The largest flaw with the film seems to come from the script, which tackles what is arguable the greatest cat and mouse game of all time like it was just another episode of a standard police procedural. When Melvin Purvis (portrayed here by Christian Bale) was actually chasing John Dillinger across the Midwest, his pursuit was powered by new methods of investigation and he was a member of the brand new F.B.I. so it's curious why the scriptwriters chose to make the pursuit seem like old hat. Bale feels like he's sleep walking through a majority of the movie, but that is not particularly his fault"”the screenplay took a conflicted, later suicidal character and turned him into a one dimensional law enforcer. Where Purvis should have been one of the film's bright spots"”conflicted, thrown into a spotlight he didn't seek and deadest on catching a man while constantly unsure if he was pushing things to far"”he was instead its low point, an a stone faced character who emoted less than the room he was standing in.

Cotillard was solid as Billie Frechette, Dillinger's lover, yet there was never any chemistry between she and Depp. When she was not by his side (as in her interrogation scene) she was often stellar, yet when the two were together, they fell flat, a problem when the film spends much of its running time exploring their relationship.

I'll end with another positive point: there were a few very solid action sequences peppered between the underwhelming majority of the movie, and the shootout in the Wisconsin woods was in fact excellent. The film often showed flashes of brilliance, but they were sadly far too fleeting, and the movie was left standing in the shadow of the film that could have been.

Grade: C+
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