Blu-Ray Review: Give Johnny Depp, Michael Mann’s ‘Public Enemies’ Another Chance

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CHICAGO – On paper, Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” looked like it would be a clear contender for end-of-the-year consideration but it has been largely forgotten, only a few months after its release. The cold, dense film didn’t register strongly enough with critics or audiences and it looks like it could disappear without much fanfare. What I think is more likely is that Mann’s dark, complex film will slowly get the recognition it deserves on the home market and it starts with this Blu-Ray release. Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0

“Public Enemies” is an examination of the intersection of the end of the era of the bank robber and the beginning of the legend of the G-men. The former is represented by one of the “public enemies” of the day, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), and the latter by the man assigned to catch the elusive mastermind, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Dillinger stole money at will and walked among the very people trying to bring him to justice. “Public Enemies” is a gorgeous piece of art about two people intent on stopping each other from doing what drives them. It’s the kind of man-to-man battle that has always fascinated the auteur behind films that include “Heat,” “Ali,” “Manhunter,” and “Miami Vice”.

Public Enemies was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on December 8th, 2009.
Public Enemies was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on December 8th, 2009.
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Home Video

For a lot of viewers, “Public Enemies” was too episodic and cold. It doesn’t have a standard build (and reminds me of “Zodiac” in that respect, another film that didn’t exactly register with movie-going audiences until DVD and Blu-Ray). Mann doesn’t idolize Dillinger and refuses to turn Purvis into a square-jawed hero. So, the film doesn’t have standard rising action of a climax typical of the genre. Unlike some people, I consider that a good thing, an effort to take a well-known story in an over-done genre and do it in a way unique to its director.

Public Enemies was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on December 8th, 2009.
Public Enemies was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on December 8th, 2009.
Photo credit: Universal Home Video

Depp gives one of the best performances of his career, refusing to turn Dillinger into a Cagney-esque caricature. It’s been ignored because it’s not as flashy a role as he’s been playing lately, but it’s deeper and more rewarding. This is his most subtle, interesting, charismatic work in years and when the history books are written on Mr. Depp, this will be considered a career highlight. It takes longer for Bale’s performance to register and it’s not quite as prominent, but he sells Purvis’ drive effectively by the final act.

The supporting cast includes many recognizable faces in small roles but only two register beyond their one or two scenes - Billy Crudup as H. Edgar Hoover and Marion Cotillard as Dillinger’s lady love. Crudup sometimes feels too much like an impersonation but Cotillard is fantastic. In just a few scenes, she completely sells her character’s fascination with Dillinger in just a smile. With her work here and in the upcoming “Nine,” Cotillard has had an amazing 2009.

The acting is great but it’s the technical accomplishment of “Public Enemies” that truly excels and that deserves more year-end attention. The production design is as detailed as any this entire year; Colleen Atwood’s costume design is flawless; Elliot Goldenthal’s score is perfect; Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is a perfect fit for the material - the overall production is as remarkable as nearly any film this year.

The Blu-Ray release of “Public Enemies” is one of the best of the holiday shopping season with a fantastic video and audio transfer that perfectly captures the unusual look and feel of the film. Shot on digital camera, “Public Enemies” is not the kind of HD transfer that you’ll use to show off your new TV, but it looks like it did in theaters, not overly polished. It’s an appropriate transfer, not just an eye-popping one.

As for special features, the “Public Enemies” Blu-Ray is loaded with them. The great U-Control allows for a timeline of events to play on the bottom of the screen, so you can keep track of the chronology of the story, or to watch picture-in-picture behind-the-scenes material as the film unfolds. The release also includes a “Gangster Movie Challenge,” a commentary by Mann, and five featurettes - “Larger Than Life: Adversaries,” “Michael Mann: Making Public Enemies,” “Last of the Legendary Outlaws,” “On Dillinger’s Trail: The Real Locations,” and “Criminal Technology”.

“Public Enemies” did pretty well with audiences but I think it’s perceived as a disappointment mostly because of its release date. The film never should have been promoted as a “Dark Knight”-esque summer movie tentpole. If it had been released in the last few weeks, it would be a much bigger part of the year-end conversation. But, if that had been the case, you wouldn’t be able to ask Santa for this excellent Blu-Ray.

‘Public Enemies’ is released by Universal Home Video and stars Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Jason Clarke, David Wenham, Stephen Dorff, Rory Cochrane, Carey Mulligan, Emilie De Ravin, Dominic Lombardozzi, and John Ortiz. It was written by Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann & Ann Biderman and directed by Mann. It was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on December 8th, 2009. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

Anonymous's picture


Thanks for setting the record straight on this mismarketed and misunderstood film. It’s a beautiful, important, and ground-breaking piece of work that will be more influential as time goes on. The only reason I still go to the moves is for filmmakers like these. Unfortunately, artists ahead of time are usually punished for their vision.

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