Public Enemies

I wasn’t much in the mood for gangster films when Public Enemies opened in 2009. I couldn’t say why. In the past I’d quite enjoyed the odd gangster flick including the all-time classic The Untouchables in 1987 and Goodfellas in 1990 – a movie that was Rated-R, yet a group of us 15 years olds saw for my friends birthday party. I recall his Dad asked for, “an adult and four children” when buying the tickets; something I find hilarious to this day; the film being 18s and over. Funny what you remember, eh?

But not even the draw of Johnny Depp – an actor I’d essentially grown-up with since his days on 21 Jump Street – could pull me into this one. Heck, it even had Christian Bale, who had already played Batman twice at this point in his career, and even that didn’t pull me in. Past Me can seem so odd with his choices, sometimes. But there it is… a new gangster film, and I had no interest at all in seeing it.

Last night that changed. I popped the movie on Amazon and was suitably impressed by it. Depp plays a super-charismatic John Dillinger just as you’d expect him to be played, and Bale plays a cold, slightly stand-offish FBI Special Agent Melvin Purvis; the man who leads the team to take Dillinger down.

At 140 minutes, the film certainly takes its time but, as a result, manages to pack a lot of story in and none of it feels particularly rushed. I quite liked that. Michael Mann – who I know is responsible for directing some greats like Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and Collateral, but also a real stinker like Miami Vice – does really well here. Although I must say in reading up after the film ended, the goal to make the film historically accurate hits a few roadbumps. ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, who we see shot near the start of the film by Purvis, actually survived Dillinger by some months. And, interestingly, Purvis was no longer leading the Dillinger investigation at the time of his shooting, but is shown in the film to have led it start to finish. I get why these decisions have been made, but they still create historical flaws.

Not much more to say here. This is a well-written, well-acted, nicely-directed film, although I will mention that as it seems to have been filmed in HD, some scenes end up looking extremely cheap. Almost video-like, in the same way that The Hobbit films looked like that, too. While it doesn’t always show, I’ll use the example of a night-time shoot out about three-quarters the way through the film. Every time the characters faces are illuminated by the gunfire, they are so brightly-lit, and so sharply in focus, it looks weird. And if the camera’s also being used in a hand held way, it just accentuates the feeling that the scenes were shot by someone using an iPhone or something. It’s like the scenes aren’t properly lit, and there’s no sense of film grain or the kind of blurring that usually gives film the other-worldly, dreamy sort of look we like. It’s very weird and those scenes were kind of hard to enjoy.

Broadly, however, this is a film that feels true to the period and conveys one of the great gangster stories of the period. One that also included Bonnie and Clyde, the Barker-Karpis gang, the Kansas City Massacre, and Machine Gun Kelly. Stiff competition, but this story’s a good one. Seek it out.

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