REVIEW: PUBLIC ENEMIES WAS A LOUSY LAY

Senior Editor
07.02.09 23 Comments

I wanted to like this movie, I really did.  Seemed like a good hook – solid ensemble cast and veteran director do a movie about 30s bank robbers ostensibly aimed at adults.  No toy commercials?  You promise?  Okay, sailor, buy me a drink and let’s see where this leads.

Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger, the prototypical cocky outlaw.  “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey…and you.  What else ya need to know?”

Snappy line there, handsome.  And it sounds good at first.  Only after a while, you feel like there is more you need to know.  Namely, what the hell is this movie about?  Is it about Dillinger and the brash young FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover (awesomely played by Billy Crudup – coulda used more of him), manipulating the press and going head to head in the court of public opinion?  Is it about old-school outlaws like Dillinger becoming obsolete in favor of mobsters, who do their stealing behind closed doors?  Is it about Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) learning that “modern” crimefighting still requires old fashioned toughness?  Is it a love story?  (I hope not, because most of Dillinger’s interactions with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) involve him telling her what to say and then repeating his demand until she complies.  How romantic.  He must f*ck like a Jedi.)

Mostly it makes token gestures towards a story and then stitches the whole thing together with long gunfights in which you can’t really tell who’s shooting at whom.  But the muzzle flashes sure look pretty.  That’s really all I got out the gun fights, that Michael Mann wants to marry a muzzle flash, preferably in high contrast while wearing a fedora.  Is it so much to ask that I actually know who the f*ck’s dying?  I wasn’t expecting a Michael Mann film to remind me so much of Transformers.  There’s a really poisonous trend going around right now (see Transformers, Quantum of Solace) where filmmakers shoot a scene but don’t communicate what’s actually happening.  They just jam a bunch of random flashes of crap in your face and then move to the next scene and you go, “Oh… I guess that happened.”  If you don’t communicate what’s going on clearly enough while it’s actually going on, we don’t experience the story in real time.  Sort of defeats the purpose of the moving picture, doesn’t it?

I’m not saying it’s all bad.  The acting is mostly great (and story aside, it’s one of the finest casts ever assembled), the first half hour or so is solid, and the film looks pretty when Michael Mann isn’t jamming the camera half an inch from someone’s face.  But the big problem is that there aren’t any details.  We keep skipping from one vignette to the next with no explanation of how we got there.  One day Dillinger’s in Chicago, the next day in Miami, then he’s in Wisconsin – why?  And isn’t this guy supposed to be some kind of gentleman bank robber who gets by on his wits?  For a supposed master planner, aside from one-liners he doesn’t do one clever thing the entire movie.  As for his counterparts in the FBI, for all their talk of modern-day crimefighting, how do they catch Dillinger?  They arrest his woman and beat the crap out of her.  Weird, I didn’t know I’d be seeing a John Cena movie.  This is me wanking.

Grade: C+

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