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Mann's uneven look at the uneven era of 'Public Enemies'

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John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) in "Public Enemies."
Johnny Depp portrays criminal John Dillinger in "Public Enemies."  (Photo from publicenemies.net)

Despite the one-dimensional hype of its Johnny Depp as John Dillinger-focused marketing campaign, "Public Enemies" is not a film about the life of an extraordinary man. It is, ultimately, a film about the death of an era in American culture.

The story of Dillinger's meteoric rise as a bank robber and fast-paced fall as a nationally-known and hunted criminal is too firmly entrenched in its historical and cultural context to be presented as a separate narrative.

Remember, "Public Enemies" is a plural title. It wasn't a one-man show in the 1930s, and it isn't in hindsight, either. Dillinger's legacy is as dependent on the determination of the men who caught him as it is on his bank heists.

Director Michael Mann has done a passable job of demonstrating this balance, evidenced by the prominent role played by Dillinger-hunter and J. Edgar Hoover G-Man Melvin Purvis, played stoically by Christian Bale.

Dillinger's contemporaries in crime received some screen time in the film as well, from Baby Face Nelson to a cameo by Pretty Boy Floyd – complete with a dramatic scene featuring real-life Hollywood pretty boy Channing Tatum.

Mann does little to hide the impending collapse of the Golden Age of crime which allowed Dillinger and his cohorts to run rampant. Several conversations in the criminal underworld foreshadow the downfall of Dillinger's brand of villainy in light of the persistence of Hoover and his task force destined to gain national authority and become the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the performance of Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard, who gives a captivating portrayal as Dillinger's love interest, Billie Frechette. The highly lauded actress says more with a few glances from her mesmerizingly expressive eyes than the rest of the cast (Depp excluded) does with the dialogue of the two-hour film.

Mann manages to capture the complexities of the era and present them in a palpable way, but he fails at achieving a sense of cohesion or unity within his film. Perhaps it was the off-putting shifts in pacing and cinematography from beautiful, contemplative moments to nausea-inducing shaky cam action scenes badly borrowed from the Bourne series. Perhaps it was the handful of horrendous acting performances, including the cringe-worthy portrayal of Judge Murray by John Lister and the forgettable role of Sheriff Lillian Holley played by Lili Taylor. Or, perhaps, the movie's uneven feeling can be attributed primarily to the difficulty of telling a story centered around such an uneven era. Mann does not present a glorification of these Public Enemies, nor does he condemn them. Rather, he positions himself and the audience as a mildly detached witness to the intertwined relationships in the lives of people on both sides of the law during the unique, memorable and short-lived period in U.S. history of vigilante criminal superstars.

Mann did not create a work as rich as his subject matter deserved, but his good choices combined with the expected brilliance of Depp and the breathtaking artistry of Cotillard make for a fascinating, albeit flawed, film.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

For more info: Visit the official site for "Public Enemies."

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