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Public Enemies Good, Not Great

Published July 1, 2009 in Movie Reviews
By Fred Topel | Image property of Universal Pictures
Public Enemies Poster Public Enemies
Public Enemies was the movie I was most excited to see this summer. The idea of a ‘30s gangster movie made with all the trappings of modern cinema seemed like an exciting, original concept. Like most summer movies, it was less than I expected. It’s good, but not great.

Review: Public Enemies


The action scenes with those old Tommy guns aren’t that exciting. They shoot with a purpose, not to show off their gangsta style. You appreciate Dillinger (Johnny Depp)’s routine but it never quite kicks up the thrills. I guess that old fake gun gag really worked in prison. Maybe this was before the guards had the foresight to know they couldn’t have smuggled a real gun behind bars, or maybe just nobody had the balls to call his bluff.

There’s a lot of frustration with Purvis’s men and their tactics. By the time they get their act together, you want Dillinger to get away. Routine becomes chaos eventually. It’s still not artful, but it’s loud spectacle. Gunshots are gory, as would be realistic, certainly a reality we didn’t see in Bonnie & Clyde and the like.

Seeing how the ‘30s media and lawyers operated is interesting. It’s probably a Hollywood thing that it’s so similar to what we see now, only with old timey talk, but that’s still an interesting perspective. Seeing how the law evolves is educational, but sometimes feels more like a lesson than a plot point.


The settings look great with streets full of old cars and old architecture and wardrobe. The visual of guys in suits standing around with guns is threatening. There are some strong profile shots where you notice the elegant posture. <P> Style calls attention to itself with lots of low angle shots looking up characters’ noses. There are a lot of shaky handheld shots too which are just common.

There’s a lot of talking about talking. Maybe that’s the old style of gangster drama, but it makes the drama plod along. It turns out the macho man/woman sh*t was the same 70 years ago. Cocky guys always had the same bravado. What is that old time American accent anyway, and what happened to it?

Even in the ‘30s, women still had sex with their underwear on. In this case it’s a full slip, not the usual bra that only movie women leave on when they’re intimate. I’m not asking for nudity, but shoot around it. It so takes you out of a movie when you’re asked to believe that people have sex with clothes on. Unless they’re in public or an elevator/airplane bathroom, everyone strips. Real life doesn’t have a no nudity clause.

Ultimately this is about what I expect from Michael Mann. I’ve never been in love with him. I like Heat a lot and Collateral is good. I even didn’t mind Ali. Wasn’t into The Insider and I hate Miami Vice. I truly believe Manhunter is the worst movie ever made. Nothing at all works about that. So a hit and miss Public Enemies is disappointing, but not surprising. There are significant moments but they seem more like accidental magic than a deliberate vision. I can’t wait for the porno version though, Pubic Enemas.

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Fred Topel
Sources: Image property of Universal Pictures
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