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Public Enemies
Genre Crime
Year: 2009
 
Review:

Public Enemy was one of the film's that ironically cemented Jimmy Cagney in the old Hollywood. His performance as Tom Powers was extraordinary and marked the rise of the crime genre and of the legend of Cagney. This is what Public Enemies is missing... a powerhouse performance that delivers substance, backbone and true gangster grit beyond the rattle of the tommy gun.

While Public Enemies is competent, solid, action-packed entertainment with a fine cast, based on an intriguing true story with top-notch production values, it shouldn't be ranked in the same league as American Gangster, Public Enemy or Heat. Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard headline the all-star cast with Michael Mann at the helm of this gangster epic, but Depp doesn't have the goods on Cagney. It's the difference between an Oscar and a pat on the back, and while Depp certainly has the potential... it's just not his best effort. This is compounded by the ability of his supporting actors in Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard. Their performances augment Depp's take on John Dillinger, but its the sort of role that demands the classic screen lead presence of a Daniel Day-Lewis or George Clooney.

Depp has buckets of experience and his performance as Dillinger is palatable and good, but good isn't quite good enough when compared with the likes of Brando, De Niro, Pacino and Cagney. Yes, crime isn't really Depp's forte, but one is left aching for more depth of character when the credits roll. This could be a script problem, since Mann's vision is quite a superficial, glazed rendition of what Public Enemies could have been. He's trying to address the film from a historical vantage point with enough flash and style to make it cool for the kids of today. To this end he succeeds... a cult-certified cast, a crime saga set in the 1930s and a story to rival the Bonnie & Clyde's of yesteryear. It's a hit on paper, but it plays about 15 minutes too long and lacks the dramatic depth and integrity of a true Oscar contender.

The film attempts to pit Bale versus Depp in a second-rate reimagining of former glories like the magnitude of Pacino versus De Niro in Heat. Public Enemies falls somewhere between Mann's previous efforts, Miami Vice and Heat. It lacks the epic, character-driven depth of Heat and relies too heavily on the cool cast and style as echoed from Miami Vice. Mann hasn't lost the ability to tell a story, there's just a lack of audience engagement. The viewer is not given a chance to actually care for the bad guys and the main villain just isn't evil or cunning enough to match American Gangster, Public Enemy or Scarface. Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd are add-ons, which only contribute to the scope and atmosphere... with another gun or two for the shoot-outs.

The shoot-outs are lavish and Mann delivers realistic depictions with point-of-view shots and loose reality camera work. These scenes have nothing on Saving Private Ryan, but add an interesting video game environment to the old school cinematography surrounding a typical shoot out. Then Oscar-winning, Marion Cotillard develops a budding romance between a "broad" and our anti-hero. It's the only real point of connectedness with the characters, but doesn't have enough chemistry to get the audience rooting for Dillinger. It's like watching events unfold with one eye attuned to the infotainment and the other on a sense of apathy.

The end result is a film that oozes with competence and quality, but one that fails to engage the audience beyond the pages of history. It's a real shame that a movie of this calibre relies on fire power rather than finesse to give classics like Bonnie & Clyde and The Public Enemy a run for their money. It's disappointing, but only because the production carried so much potential. The good news is that Michael Mann has taken a step up from Miami Vice, and it'll be interesting to see what he has in store for 2012.

The bottom line: Solid.

 

 

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