Public Enemies: Worth Looking At, Not Worth Watching

Based on the true story of a notorious depression-era bank robber, Public Enemies brings the crime spree and police hunt of John Dillinger to the silver screen. In a film that desperately attempts to provoke any emotion, Public Enemies fails to capture the imagination, create emotional dimension or shock the senses.

In 1933, during the height of the Great Depression, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his crew crisscrossed the country, robbing banks and became folk heroes. During an evening out, hiding in plain sight, Dillinger meets the beautiful Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and immediately dedicates himself to her, and she to him. The agent in charge of the Bureau of Investigation into Dillinger, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) doggedly chases the gang cross-country, but his bumbling agents become more inept as the chase drags on.

Chase after chase, shoot out after shoot out, arrest after arrest, action is the plot in Public Enemies. The same action-driven events repeat copiously and the redundancy lacks irony, tragedy, or serendipity. It just cycles endlessly between poorly choreographed gun fights, car chases and police failures. Consequently, Public Enemies left me feeling like I had a drawn out case of déjà-vu.

There was little time between the action for verbal interaction between characters and what writing there is is shallow and does not deepen the connection between characters. The relationship between Billie and John is shallow and unconvincing. Depp and Cotillard don’t have the sizzling chemistry required to make their love-at-first-sight believable and the writers, Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann and Ann Biderman didn’t put any meat on the relationship’s bones. Billie and John’s relationship is a template for the rest of the relationships in the film. The most useful verbal communication is the old fashioned news radio broadcasts used as cheap narrative tool.

Just like Dillinger, characters like Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), Melvin Purvis , John ‘Red’ Hamilton (Jason Clarke), Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) are introduced, but they are given so little time to develop, they are nothing more than Tommy Guns with different faces attached. The writers might as well have left the supporting characters unnamed. The writers gave more specific details about the cars than they did the characters based on real people.

There was a beautiful attention to detail when it comes to the architecture, fashion and automobiles in Public Enemies. As a girl, I learned how to restore cars of this era and my family was a member of a car club, so I grew up around antique cars. I know what it takes to make the cars of this time to be as perfectly restored as the 1920’s and 1930’s cars in Public Enemies. The attention to details by the people who lovingly restored the cars, instead of turning them into a penis enhancing hot rod, needs to be commended. They are rolling pieces of American history during the Desoto, Dodge Brothers, rumble seats and three window coups period.

The most brilliant character has got to be the architecture. The banks featured in the film glisten like a young starlet in her prime. Gold banisters shine amongst marvelously detailed molding and marble counters. The prison in the opening scene is imposing, stark and fascinating.

In fact, if Public Enemies could be reviewed on visuals alone, it might have won my heart. Creative use of camera angles, lighting, and scenery make the audience feel a sense of awe. The shaky camera work can make the audience nauseous, but in many scenes, it adds an overall sense of chaos.

Public Enemies is as beautiful as a Playboy centerfold and as substantive as a Hustler article. It is only worth looking at, not worth watching.

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