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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Public Enemies

When director Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice) embraced digital video cameras with his Tom Cruise thriller Collateral, it was seen as a legitimate stylistic choice for that film's gritty late-night urban setting. But using the same cutting-edge video cameras to film Public Enemies might raise a few eyebrows, seeing as it's the story of the last few months in the life of notorious bank robber and US public enemy number one John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), and last time anyone checked they weren't big on video cameras back in 1933. Once you get past the jarring nature of traditional gangster hijinks (complete with men in fedoras firing tommy guns from the running boards of speeding sedans) shot in hi-def video, there's a whole lot to enjoy in Mann's latest crime epic.

Basically it's yet another one of Mann's character studies where a hard-boiled crime professional faces off against his law-enforcement doppelganger (Christian Bale), though here the balance is slanted heavily towards the criminal side of life. There's some loose attempts to give Dillinger's final days some deeper meaning here, mostly in the form of a passable love story grafted onto his life and a subplot about how the rise of the professional mafia turned flamboyant crims like Dillinger into a liability for everyone, but you're here for Depp (who's great) and the shoot-outs (which are also great).

This isn't Mann's best work: the character side of things feels a little lightweight as we never really get under the skin of anyone involved, and despite the two hour plus running time (which flies by) the whole thing feels oddly superficial. Then again, so did the gangster films of the 1930s and this - while clearly an update in technical terms, and a firmly modern film in many ways - is also very much in that run-and-gun tradition. Heat still remains Mann's masterpiece, but a B+ from him is still A+ viewing.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #458)

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