Public Enemies Review: A Realistic and Engaging Gangster Drama

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There are a plethora of gangster films throughout Hollywood cinema; some are iconic based on some elaborate portrayals of character, including White Heat or Little Caesar, while others are exaggerated in violence and deception, much like The Untouchables or Scarface. However, there is no denying that film has been an avid forum for telling these larger than life stories of renowned outlaws, and Michael Mann was the right director for the task of telling the significant tale of public enemy number one, John Dillinger. His finesse and talent for exciting shoot out sequences and sense of balance for a proper mixture of highly developed character interactions brings Public Enemies in the limelight as one of Mann’s best examples of his strengths in many years. Bringing in the unique presence of the subtle acting techniques from the talented Johnny Depp and the charismatic and charming Christian Bale, these two men lead a diverse cast of characters through a realistic and extremely modern portrayal of the gangster drama, a task only aided by the style that Mann is known for and the beautiful and delicate work of cinematographer Dante Spinotti.

Public Enemies begins with John Dillinger returning to the prison that held him for nine years springing his fellow inmates, his future bank robbery compatriots, from their jail seclusion. Our introduction to this seemingly intelligent and charming character only strengthens over the course of the film bringing a tightly layered individual that is subdued and existential, living life in the now and never thinking about tomorrow. Johnny Depp uses his strengths as a subtle actor, never engaging in the overdramatic, to bring this complex character to life, who has a distinct depiction of life and loyalty. His elaborate tastes of the high life brings to his attention a coat check girl named Billy Fechette, played by the remarkable newcomer Marion Cotillard, who is swept away by the charming bank robber just slightly more than the public at large. Dillinger is an efficient bank robber disciplined to taking what is insured, not the lowly publics money only the banks, and is delightfully more charming than some of the other robbery icons, such as Baby Face Nelson. Rivaling the outlaws is a newly enhanced Federal Bureau of Investigation led by the obsessive and determined J. Edgar Hoover, efficiently portrayed by Billy Crudup, who has assigned his fresh faced Cary Grant-esque officer Melvin Purvis to apprehend John Dillinger at all costs. This results in a series of embarrassments for the FBI, which convinces Melvin Purvis to bring in some lawmen from Texas who are tailored for the rigid and often brutal tactics that is needed to catching these outlaws. All of these type A stubborn personalities, all these men with ego and manipulation to spare, are at constant struggle throughout the film making this cop pursuing gangster drama an exciting film to experience through its energetic script and presentation.


Michael Mann’s presentation of Dillinger’s story, while slightly fictionalized, makes for a stunning piece of artistic work that is highly accentuated with Mann’s style of filmmaking. There is a heavy use of tilted angles and extreme close ups that make the film quite accessible if not just interesting to look at. The audience is taken for this gangster ride while in the front seat, which at times is disorienting yet extremely suspenseful. Of course the real strength of the film is when there is a lot of gunfire, however, the action isn’t overdone nor does it get boring. Instead the use of violence and the realistic tone seduce the audience into paying more attention to the characters on screen. The violence blends in with the beautiful framing making the more explicit scenes of bloody outcomes seem as more of a beautiful disaster than a depiction of unnecessary brutality. At the same time Mann is able to utilize his actors to every bit of their known strengths, Depp seemingly lost within himself at times with his deep and reflective gaze when in seclusion while being as charming as he is efficient in the public forum, and as for Bale, there is a strong and determined sense to him while at the same time there is a moral side to him, only bending the rules but never breaking them. While only on screen once with each other, these two men command their separate domains with precision and energy that was needed to successfully guide this American gangster film from blending in from so many others of its kind.

Just like his other films, such as Collateral or even Heat, Mann has a personalized style that seems to always be growing in maturity and direction that always guides the film in its best qualities. The film is brilliantly shot by cinematographer Dante Spinotti, whose eye captures the various settings quite delicately, either the marble walls of a bank or the incredibly crystal clear blue sky outside of a jail cell, the film wouldn’t have been the same without his eye behind the camera. The use of shadows and grainy dark hallways allow for a more suspenseful and accurate approach to the scenes that heighten the stories darker undertones. However, Mann’s fresh approach to his cast, which seems just as sporadic and numerous as Depp’s own performance, brings a life to the script and story that wouldn’t otherwise have worked with a series of star actors. Instead Mann’s use of understated and diverse character actors, such as Giovanni Ribisi, Walter Deitrich, and Steven Graham, enhances the story and makes the already highly developed characters more accessible and interesting.

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A combination of methodical and reflective acting from a grand cast, the innovative signature style from director Michael Mann, and a brilliant use of framing and lighting from cinematographer Dante Spinotti really makes Public Enemies a worthwhile cinematic American gangster experience. The film’s only weakness of not having much sympathy for any character in a world that is relative in morals doesn’t deter from the exciting and potent portrayal of violence combined with a series of characters whose egos clash bringing out the stories more interesting developments. Never allowing the film to feel too exaggerated or unbelievable, Michael Mann pulls out his best cinematic strengths to make a realistic and less romanticized depiction of the American gangster years that is unique, entertaining, and above all, artistically credible.

Grade: B+

One Response to “Public Enemies Review: A Realistic and Engaging Gangster Drama”
  1. Mario G says:

    Everything you say is right, except the cinematography. Shooting this on film rather than digital would raise my rating of it from 7.5 to 8.8. I just can’t say it’s a great film when half of it is blurry, washed out, and lacking the true grit of picture that only film can produce.

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