Public Enemies (2009)

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Published on: 2009.07.19

For Johnny Depp fans, or the growing swell of Christian Bale fans, Public Enemies (2009) is a movie to see. Both actors are brilliant in the film.

But I can’t say the film itself was brilliant.

First the good stuff. Depp and Bale were amazing, as was Marion Cotillard in the lead female role as John Dillinger’s girlfriend.

In places, the camera work was amazing, and the music was done well — assisting rather than distracting from the movie. Action scenes were correctly brutal and indicative of the times (1930s), when gangsters were fighting for survival and the U.S. government was desperate to stop it.

The set designs and costumes appeared to be well-researched and amazingly executed. I felt like the movie was actually filmed in the 1930s.

Where it started falling apart for me:

1) Right off the bat, the volume levels were strange. One second, the movie would be eerily quiet, although characters on screen were talking. Then there would be a closeup, and the volume would shoot up to maximum. Had I been watching this at home, I would have done so with remote control in hand, to regulate the volume to keep my neighbors happy.

2) Pretty quickly, the camera work gets irritating. Yes, there were amazing moments, as mentioned above, but much of the movie is filmed in a shaky style, using telephoto lenses from a distance when closeup work with a normal lens would have been much better. Also, the camera guys seemed to fiddle with their focus dials constantly, so cars, people, and other objects came in and out of clarity without reason. It was simply distracting and annoying.

3) Also, I was told the movie was filmed in high-definition digital format. I don’t believe it. For one thing, almost every scene had too much grain, almost as if it had been introduced in post-processing. It looked like computer-induced grain, not the normal grain you’d get off of film. For another thing, the color balance was off-kilter most of the time. A few scenes looked great in sepia tones bordering on black-and-white, but other times the flesh-tones of the actors was too peachy, and other colors seemed off, similar to cheap digital cameras early in this decade.

4) The movie strayed from history (like any fictionalized, “based on a true story” movie will do), but it did so only in odd places, and ignored parts of history that would have made the film more interesting. For instance, the story ignores the “economic misery that made Dillinger a folk hero” (critic Liam Lacey of the NY Times). In fact for the most part, the story completely ignores Dillinger’s popularity.

5) The romance angle might have worked for anyone who didn’t know the truth. In the movie, Dillinger is devoted to Billie Frechette. But in real life, she was just one in a string of girlfriends he had after getting out of prison.

6) It spent too much time with “cat and mouse.” Instead of character development (which could have helped a lot), the script spends a lot of time setting up the eventual downfall of Dillinger with overplayed “cops and robbers” type stuff.

This is not director Michael Mann’s best film, though it was better than 2006’s “Miami Vice.” Mann’s take on Muhammad Ali (“Ali,” 2001) was much better than this one, but he’s probably best known for “Last of the Mohicans” in 1992. My favorite Mann movie is still “Heat,” which had such an amazing set of identifiable characters that I’ll never forget any of them.

Almost every movie has “goofs,” which are pretty well documented on websites like IMDb.com and Wikipedia. But “Public Enemies” had some interesting and avoidable ones.

* For instance, one of Depp’s finger tattoos is prominently displayed when the camera unnecessarily shoots a closeup of his hand. The directors also made no attempt to cover up the holes in his ears from multiple piercings.

* At one point in the early 1930s, Baby Face Nelson does a James Cagney impersonation from a movie that wasn’t released until 1938.

* In the movie, a character clicks on a radio and music instantly comes out. Even until the 1950s and ’60s, those old radios took several seconds to warm up.

* Also, a couple of characters are seen smoking filtered cigarettes, which weren’t sold on shelves until the 1950s.

* A transcript of a phone call is printed clearly in a computer font (similar to Times New Roman) instead of being typed on typing paper.

* Cotillard uses a French accent during an interrogation scene, though for the rest of the movie she plays a decidedly American character.

(Special Note: Though the MPAA rating includes “for gangster violence,” most of the violence in the movie, especially the shocking violence, is committed by police or federal investigators, not gangsters.)

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IMDb: Public Enemies
Wikipedia: Public Enemies
Rating: R
(gangster violence and some language)
Length: 140 min (2:20)
Director: Michael Mann
Genre: Crime / History / Romance
My Rating: 6 of 10
Family Friendly: No (bloody violence)
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MAIN STARS:
Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum, Stephen Graham, Marion Cotillard
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