What do you get when you combine the dream pairing of two terrific actors, Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, and Michael Mann, director of excellent films such as Heat and Manhunter? Apparently, you get a middling gangster movie that fails to live up to the high standards the talent involved has set for itself. Public Enemies takes a no fail formula and somehow mucks it up with a healthy dose of mediocrity and imbalanced performances. That’s not to say it’s bad, but with such an impressive pedigree backing it up, one can’t help but wonder what went wrong along the way.
Public Enemies begins in 1933, in the fourth year of the Great Depression. At a time when the country was suffering, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) was prospering from his uncanny ability to rob banks, netting thousands of dollars in the process, and somehow evading police every time. After a string of successful robberies, and deemed a menace to society for making the police look foolish, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is given the task of bringing Dillinger to justice.
When you look at a film like Public Enemies and your expectations are justifiably high, with wishes that the incredible talent involved will produce a masterpiece, one tends to nitpick on the negatives rather than praise the positives. In fact, some of my criticisms could hardly be called “negatives” because they don’t necessarily feed off of the problems of the film, but rather my hopes and dreams that failed to come into fruition onscreen. I say this with the desire that you won’t take my excessive criticism too seriously, but understand that I merely respect these filmmakers so much that it’s disheartening to see them fail to live up to their potential. With that said, let’s get on with it, shall we?
The year 1933 is an interesting time period, one that could have given the film some context, but it fails to capitalize on the idea. It takes place during the Great Depression and many people in the country are struggling to get by while Dillinger lives the high life with wealth beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations. The movie could have used this as a way to contrast between the riches of Dillinger and the poverty of a seemingly dying nation, exploring how his actions robbing banks was effecting the overall economy, but no connection was made. In a film with such a fruitful historical background, this was a big missed opportunity.
Nevertheless, Johnny Depp is fascinating in his portrayal of Dillinger, a fearless, reckless outlaw uncaring of the pain he’s causing to others, as long as he gets his due, but even he can’t make up for the fact that his character is shamefully unexplored. At one point in the movie, Dillinger explains that as a child he made a stupid mistake, stealing from a kind man, only to be caught and sentenced to 10 years in prison, an outrageous sentencing for a seemingly minor 50 dollar theft. This could have been used as a means to provide a bit of character development, explaining why he turned out the way he did, but instead, it gets dropped almost immediately, turning into another disappointing exercise of pointlessness that the film seemed to revel in.
Public Enemies is directed by Michael Mann, the same guy who directed the excellent film, Heat and he attempts to use the same equation here that worked so well in that. He takes two stellar actors and separates them throughout most of the film, only to bring them together in one key scene, hoping it will have the same impact as the epic pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in that aforementioned film, but it simply doesn’t. While Bale is far from bad in his role as the special agent assigned to bring down Dillinger, he is mediocre in comparison to Depp’s terrific performance. In Heat, each actor was equally enthralling in their respective roles, but here, the jump between the riveting Depp overshadows the blander Bale scenes, so the eventual pairing of the two doesn’t pay off.
In addition to all of that, the writing could have been spruced up a little to convey a feeling of excitement because as the finished film stands, it’s a tad boring. The best dialogue driven films remain captivating because the exchanges between characters are interesting and well written. Here, it comes off as flat. The dialogue isn’t bad in an eye rolling, laughable way, but it’s not particularly interesting either.
Despite my incessant negativity towards the film in this review, I am going to recommend it, if only mildly so, because it does have some genuinely suspenseful moments, including a fantastic jail break scene, and the always reliable Depp in another home run performance. Regardless, this is one of the most disappointing movies to be released so far this year. It’s still worth your time; just be sure to keep your expectations in check.
Public Enemies receives 2.5/5