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Public Enemies

February 18, 2016

Public Enemies (2008)
Director: Michael Mann
Actors: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard

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Synopsis: John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is the US’ “Public Enemy Number One” after executing a series of bank robberies in the early 1930s. Special FBI Agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), is tasked with bringing Dillinger to justice, and over a series of years and ‘near misses’, Purvis’ slowly tightens the noose around Dillinger…

Review: Even a marginally off-key Michael Mann work, that is perhaps guilty of bending the material a little too much to Mann’s own whims and delectations, is still a hugely pleasurable watch nevertheless. And restricted though Mann may be by the specific real-life plot detail and period trappings of Public Enemies, it’s still superior genre fare and a real exposition of top-notch thriller filmmaking.

In particular, as with other Mann works of the Nineties/Noughties, he’s remarkable at integrating the personal and transcendent to these otherwise forensic narratives about politics and communities (in many cases, his films – as in this case – are interested in the thin dividing line between cop and criminal fraternities.) Mann does this by imbuing his breathless storytelling with just a hint of the notion of permanence – implacable skies or historic architecture – before scurrying back to a more microscopic account of the players and events. At times in Public Enemies, that reaching for the ‘profound’ feels a tad more forced and unearned than in other recent Mann numbers, especially by shoehorning in a fatalistic pathos to Dillinger and Billie’s love-match ever so quickly (even though Marion Cotillard does an admirable job of making this ‘leap of faith’ about the depth of their relationship tenable.)

Other elements to Public Enemies find Mann on more sure footing. Does anyone film shoot-outs more thrillingly? And the way Mann transitions out of an intense scene and cuts to a whole new scenario – in media res, and replete with a completely different set of players and stakes in the narrative – conjures a cosmic sense of the interconnected (chiming with that idea of transcendence, mentioned earlier in the piece.)

Being picky, perhaps Public Enemies’ casting could have been more intuitive. Mann’s works are so moody and impressionistic that they often function better with stoic, internal actors rather than the more outside-to-in actors we have here (Johnny Depp and Christian Bale) who battle to convey the epic psychological undertow Mann is striving for. Also, Mann dabbles in newsreel pastiche but this feels unnecessary and half-hearted – partly because Mann uses the technique only twice, but also as the film is otherwise much subtler in offering its commentary on the cult of the PR arena of “FBI versus Public Enemies” at the time. Minor quibbles aside, this is a film to enjoy and bask in: a seasoned genre filmmaker at the height of his game, still able to turn even one of his lesser works into something classy and gripping. (February 2016)

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