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Who's your enemy?: Depression era crime saga is heavy on the depressing 

dances with the devil in the pale moonlight. Public Enemies is bound to score some real fans, but I am sure it will make its

click to enlarge dances with the devil in the pale moonlight.
  • dances with the devil in the pale moonlight.
dances with the devil in the pale moonlight. Public Enemies is bound to score some real fans, but I am sure it will make its share of enemies as well. Director Michael Mann takes a true Depression-era crime story and interprets it with ultra-heavy handedness beyond any sense of realism. As an art/crime film, this is an impressive flick, but its brooding quality breathes hollow.

Rising from Indiana crime sprees to Public Enemy number one, John Dillinger was regarded as a latter-day Robin Hood. Robbing banks that had gotten fat while foreclosing on famiy farms. But Dillinger embraced his rock-star status, exuding bravado and charisma. Yet the film plays out in one somber moment after another, as if everyone was still reeling from The Depression and acting all...depressed.

Johnny Depp (playing Dillinger) brilliantly festers in a uniquely restrained performance. Depp has the ability to slide into whatever role he takes and it was nice to see him in one that didn't require an English accent. A sorely miscast Christian Bale, gives us a one-note performance as FBI agent Melvin Purvis, pensively staring into space. We see him slip in and out of accents covering maybe five different Southern regions. Captivating actress Marion Cotillard, as Dillinger's love Billie Frechette, does a good job with a poorly written part. Billy Cruddup is convincing and entertaining as J. Edgar Hoover. There's a veritable avalanche of cameos and appearances by recognizable actors and some really well picked unknowns. Still, most characters come off empty. I don't care how many cool handheld shots you surround them with, it's hard to care for any character at all.

Mann's bag of tricks is wearing thin as his style is reminiscent of all the movies he's ever made. This time around it's in an artsy, experimental retread mode. As he did in Heat, he spends too much screen time setting up relationships with cataclysmic dialogue. There's romantic enhancement by exaggerated overuse of the song "Bye Bye Blackbird," which is at one point sung by Diana Krall. He also uses Americana-rock based soundtrack and slow-moving scenes to play up a commentary about the ineptitude of law enforcement. Although many images on the screen are compelling to watch, the overall impact is muted, partly due to it being shot on HD video rather than film. Mann's decision to shoot in high-def results in a grainy video look that detracts from the feel of the era. Relying on the most visceral and ominous tones he can conjure up, combined with the flashy video look, he drags you out of the moment too many times. On the plus side, instead of the grand opus of Last of the Mohicans, Thief and Heat, Mann staged Dillinger's heist sequences and shootouts as blatant, in-your-face cinema verite. The cinematography excels during the nighttime shootout at The Little Bohemia Lodge the impressive gun blasts exploding with bursts of white light and heat. Another high point was Dillinger watching the movie Manhattan Melodrama before his fatal destiny outside the Biograph theater. Focusing on Dillinger's expression, we're seduced into a parallel universe of gangsters on screen, resulting in a communal idolization of onscreen mustached bad guys.

Although clearly intended to be just a slice of the hayseed bank robber's life, all we get here is melodrama and false introspection interrupted by spasms of violence. If Mann could've raised his vision out of the darkness and pathos far enough to put some charm and allure into his folk-hero criminal I wouldn't feel like I saw just another of his by-the-numbers movies. Despite all its artistic integrity, this movie falls flat.

Public Enemies ★★✩✩✩
Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard. Directed by Michael Mann


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