Taking place in the 1930, Public Enemies follows the story of FBI agent Melvin Purvis and his attempt at taking down the notorious gangsters John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. The film stars Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Channing Tatum and Giovanni Ribisi.
Based off of the book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, this Michael Mann film has a lot of hype building up to it as the next great American gangster classic. But is it?
Loyal Latinoreview reader Caxe got an early look at the film and writes in with his impressions of the movie:
I preface with this a bad but apt analogy - a screenplay is a roadmap: a good one will often lead to a good film, but this is not always the case, and on the way to a good film, the director can get lost and lead the entire production off a cliff.
This essentially sums up what I saw last night - Michael Mann's Public Enemies. I was excited to see this movie, excited as in one-of-my-top-movies-to-see-in-09 excited. I'd read the screenplay and absolutely loved it. Killer story, awesome script, great director, top-notch cast... what could possibly go wrong?
In the case of Public Enemies... a lot.
It starts out promising with a tense and very tight jail-break sequence where we meet Dillinger (Jack Sparrow) and the freshly busted-out members of his gang.
The guys head back to their hideout in Chicago. Everyone there loves Dillinger because he's a gentleman Robin Hood who only robs banks, always has a smile on his face, and treats all women like his mother. He steals money from the fat cat bank presidents and everyone's happy.
Now we go to D.C. where J. Edgar Hoover (Dr. Manhattan) is getting raked across the coals at a Congressional committee hearing on organized crime for being a shitty FBI director. Hoover is not pleased and decides to put together a crack team to keep Dillinger and his fellow trouble makers from making him look bad.
Next up - federal agent Melvin Purvis (Batman) hunts down the infamous Pretty Boy Floyd. Floyd doesn't give up so Purvis shoots him dead. Purvis is praised for being a tried-and-true Boy Scout and Hoover personally hands him the dandy job of stopping the bad guys.
Purvis hits the ground running and promises to make full use of all the latest criminal investigation techniques to locate the gangsters.
Back in Chicago, Dillinger robs some more banks and goes to a party with Giovanni Ribisi. Ribisi says they should rob a train full of more money than anyone has ever seen and retire. Dillinger says he's not ready to retire yet. We meet a lot of other mobsters, all of whom respect Dillinger. Dilly meets a pretty girl named Billie (Edith Piaf) who he falls in love with suddenly and promises never to abandon.
Now about the same time, the FBI is able to determine the exact type of coat Dillinger liked to wear, and doing some fancy investigating, they close in on where they think he is hiding out...
Now this is a great first act. I was hooked and very excited to see where this was going... but unfortunately, this is where Mann decided to veer off the road and head toward a cliff blind-folded.
Purvis goes after Dillinger, only it's not Dillinger, it's another gangster, and he gets away and some guys die. FBI agents turn to some underhanded techniques. Purvis turns a blind eye toward it and starts to wonder if the guys he's working with and the things they are doing are actually worse than the people he's hunting.
Somehow, Dillinger is found and arrested. Dillinger escapes. Everyone dies. Dillinger turns desperate, works with a real a-hole named Baby Face Nelson, and everyone hates him including other criminals who have turned to gamlbing and other less "invasive" money-making techniques.
More and more characters we don't know or care about are paraded about in uninteresting ways and we barrel towards a confusing and muddled conclusion with almost as many endings as Return of the King, only none of them have any real resonance because we barely know or have feel anything for any of the characters, except maybe a little for Dillinger.
Honestly, on paper, this film is amazing. Shoot outs? Some daring prison escapes? Gangsters? Old fashioned wire taps and detective stuff? An outdated gangster looking back on his life and how all his friends are dead?
This IS a great idea... only it's a poorly executed one. It's like Mann when was on his way to transferring this amazing idea onto film or whatever digital crap he shoots his action sequences on, something was lost.
That's not to say there aren't good things in it - there are true moments of greatness within the film, but they are just diluted and all meaning is sucked out because of the slow pace, lack of investment in most of the characters, and just a feeling of being muddled. We don't know anything about any of the characters beyond their actions on screen, and because of that, it feels like we know nothing about any of them and therefore just don't really care.
Because of this, most of the characters are flat. Crudup honestly steals the show as Hoover, and that's just because he's got real moxie on screen. Depp and Bale do okay, as does Marion Cotillard, but that's just because they are who they are - they honestly don't have much to do because they are given so little and the pacing is so incredibly slow - and that's not typical for a Michael Mann movie. On top of that, there are so many characters, none of them are really well developed beyond one or two attributes - Dillinger as a noble robber, Purvis as the Boy Scout, Hoover as the arrogant, cross-dressing opportunistic dick and Billie as the devoted girlfriend.
And it's not that a large cast can't be done well - All the President's Men, The Departed, Godford Park, Zodiac, and a whole bunch of others all managed just fine.
The action scenes are strong but start to get repetitive after a while - and Michael Mann's use of digital "real" looking picture quality during the shoot-outs is absolutely dreadful and distracting.
Public Enemies just tries to take on so many little ideas and bits willy-nilly that it truly loses focus. On the little questionaire after the movie, one question asked "What was the movie about?" The fact that they asked this question means it's clear to everyone involved that this movie is muddled - it's a mess and I have no doubt that everyone is trying to do whatever they can to fix it.
And truth be told, I'm not sure there is a way to do it. Editing it down could fix some pacing issues, but even then, speeding up a parade of uninteresting characters can't make up for the fact that there's no real substance in a good portion of the movie. And totally excising subplot won't leave enough for a full-length film.
Ugh. Everyone I saw it with was absolutely bummed by this. Because of the absolute brilliance buried in Public Enemies, they'll be able to cut a good trailer and people are going to want to go see it because of the two leads or maybe because they loved Miami Vice, but this isn't the movie anyone, even Michael Mann, will want it to be.
Follow my updates on TWITTER