Complete A-Z list

Public Enemies


Stars: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Jason Clarke, Rory Cochrane, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Lang, Matt Clark, James Russo, Channing Tatum, Casey Siemaszko, Emilie De Ravin, Giovanni Ribisi, Diana Krall, Shawn Hatosy, David Warshowsky, Leelee Sobieski, Carey Mulligan, Lili Taylor

Director: Michael Mann

Great Depression gangster and Public Enemy No.1 John Dillinger deserves a special place in the hearts and minds of moviegoers since he was gunned down leaving a cinema after seeing the Clark Gable starrer Manhattan Melodrama in Chicago’s Biograph Theater in Chicago in 1934 History could have been so, so different. If, for instance, he had been watching Sex Lives of the Potato Men, he would have headed for home long before the end and well before the G-Men turned up.

Mann’s biopic casts Depp giving as powerful and compelling performance as the screenplay allows as Dillinger, picking him up when he breaks out of prison and following his activities until his death. Dillinger is hunted by the newly formed FBI (Crudup makes a memorable J Edgar Hoover) in the person of Melvin Purvis, powerfully characterised by Bale who, strangely, is barely mentioned in the movie’s promotion.

Given the inevitability of the story, Mann’s decision to reduce the narrative to an essentially two character story (Cotillard supplies glamour as Dillinger’s 'moll' but little in the way of interesting drama) works well enough, with vividly staged bursts of gun-blazing action providing the visceral appeal and excitement. It’s the action that compensates for shallow characterisation, best summed up by Dillinger’s line: “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars and you. What else do you need to know?” Poor sound recording muffles a lot of the dialogue so while it’s possible there was more information on offer, I can’t be sure of the answer to Dillinger/Depp’s question.

Praise is due to Dante Spinotti whose atmospheric HDTV cinematography is a considerable asset and to a large, largely effective supporting cast. Mann’s vigorous direction is in line with most of his previous work which, for some, may be good news. Others may think otherwise. As a character-exposing biography/hagiography, Public Enemies doesn’t really deliver. But as an adrenaline surging action thriller, it definitely does, offering more bullets than an average coup in Central Africa.

(And for the record, Dillinger has been variously impersonated by Lawrence Tierney, Scott Peters, Warren Oates, Robert Conrad and (on television) by Mark Harmon).

Alan Frank

USA 2009. UK Distributor: Universal. Colour.
139 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 3, Drugs 0, Swearing 3.

Review date: 29 Jun 2009