Box-Office Shootout: "Public Enemies" vs Robots and Dinos —Which One Is Worth Talking About?

By |

I don't know which news is worse: That the box-office crown for the five-day July 4th holiday weekend was won by an inferior animated film, Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, with $67.5 million in the till. Or that an inferior robot film, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, which took in $65 million from Wednesday to Sunday, is now the highest-grossing movie of the year so far, with $293 million collected in just a dozen days. Since Trans 2 isn't slowing down, Michael Bay's attempt to kill all that's human in cinema looks like the machine that will define popular film taste in the year 2009. Talk about a tacky time capsule.

I prefer to focus on better news: The continued success of UP ($265 million so far) — come on Pixar, bite Bay on the ass. The impressive performance of Kathryn Bigelow's brilliant Hurt Locker in limited release. And the way Michael Mann's Public Enemies refuses to be written off as an art film geared to the snob set. Starring a superb Johnny Depp as gangster John Dillinger, Public Enemies took in a sturdy $41 million in its first five days. That means a lot of you out there shelled out the cash and saw it. Here's a thoughtful letter I received that reflects problems I'm hearing about the movie:

You are one of my favorite critics, but i just don't understand what you saw in Public Enemies. Sure, Johnny Depp was great in his portrayal of Dillinger, andI also agree that Michael Mann is a better director than Michael Bay, BUT that is not enough to make an above-average movie. The main problem was that there was too much going on in the plot. I wasn't sure whether it was a story about DIllinger robbing banks or if it was about his love for the coat check girl or if it was about his popularity with the people or if it was about the FBI becoming more advanced and so on. I think that if they focused on just one of these elements it would have been a much better film.

Solid points are being made in this letter. Michael Mann has rarely been content to tell one story. My argument is that the size of Mann's ambition is well worth the challenge of following his plot threads, including a romance with a woman of mixed race (Marion Cotillard) who is as much an outsider as Dillinger. Mann has always been concerned with the individual up against a society that means to co-opt and tame him. That also goes for Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the FBI man who hunted him down. The movie needs to show us Dillinger battling the forces of organized crime and Purvis fighting FBI methods that extend to torture.

So I ask you: how did Public Enemies strike you as a movie? Did the film's perceived flaws overwhelm its virtues? Do you think Depp and Cotillard had genuine chemistry or was their love story a distraction without purpose? Did the handheld camera come off as innovative or off-putting? And the ultimate question: Would you recommend Public Enemies to your friends or tell them to skip it?