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Public Enemies by Michael Mann

July 15, 2009

When I saw Heat, another Michael Mann film, in the theater back in college, I was by myself and it was probably one of the best movie-going experiences I can remember. The theater was mostly empty, and the gunshots seemed to ricochet off the stadium seats around me. This time, I was in Chicago, where much of Public Enemies takes place, and again I was alone.

Is it fair to compare Public Enemies to Heat? They’re both Michael Mann films about bank robbers, and they both make the case for the good in the bad guys and the bad in the good guys and how relationships are affected when men become obsessed with what they do.

So there, I guess I am comparing. But Heat, with its extra thirty minutes, is able to develop the characters much more fully. We get to see the home lives of the three main characters. In Public Enemies the relationships are a little more flat. Johnny Depp, who plays John Dillinger, and Christian Bale who plays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent chasing him, both do a great job, as usual. But Dillinger’s relationship with his girl isn’t fully developed, and we don’t know what Purvis is like at home. As such, this movie relies more on the shootouts and bank robberies to pull us through. And while nobody shoots bank robberies as well as Mann, and while I walked out of the theater thinking, “Man, I should get a tommy gun,” I didn’t care as much for the characters as I did in Heat.

As the plot goes, there are some good moments, most carried by Depp’s ability show his inner conflict. My favorite was, toward the end, when he walks into the police department’s “John Dillinger Unit” while all the cops are sitting around the radio listening to the Cubs-Yankees game. He strolls casually around the office, examining all the photos of him and the evidence from his case on the walls, realizing that of his gang, he’s the last one left. Then, at the height of his bravado, he asks what the score of the game is. Aside from these moments, there are few surprises. After all, it’s a true story and the end was known 80 years ago.

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