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Now or Then – Public Enemies or The Untouchables?

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Now: Public Enemies (2009)Then: The Untouchables (1987)

Brandishing a murderers’ row of cheekbones and all the muzzle money can buy, Michael Mann’s Public Enemies offers us a romantic vision of the Depression-era bandit John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) as he’s chased by a federal agent (Christian Bale) across the Midwest. Over two decades ago, Brian De Palma’s hit The Untouchables gave us a decidedly more black-and-white take on cops and robbers, with a team of virtuous good guys working to unravel the blood-and-booze-soaked empire of the Chicago mob boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro). So, when Mann’s brooding crime epic and De Palma’s sensational action flick face off, which of these pictures runs away with the loot?

The Long Arm of the Law
Public Enemies: Stone-faced FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Bale) is unrelenting in his pursuit of Dillinger, despite having issues with the strong-arm tactics encouraged by a young J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup).
The Untouchables: Idealistic Treasury official Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is such a paragon of virtue that he needs to be schooled by loyal beat cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) in the ways of Chicago crime-fighting.
Winner: The Untouchables. Ness is a bit one-dimensional, but Malone and the other “untouchables” are the heart of this flick.

Mythical Actors, Mythical Outlaws
Public Enemies: Thanks to a spree of bank robberies in which he refuses to take ordinary citizens’ money, Depp’s John Dillinger achieves folk-hero status during the Great Depression.
The Untouchables: Although he claims to be a man of the people, De Niro’s Al Capone is a brutal thug who will stoop to beating an associate with a baseball bat when the situation demands it.
Winner: Public Enemies. De Niro makes for a great movie monster, but Depp’s Zen outlaw has a riveting appeal.

Violence, Violence, and More Violence
Public Enemies: Epic gun battles plague Dillinger and company. Almost always, it’s because some idiot started shooting without provocation.
The Untouchables: Although most of them are new to gunplay, Ness and his men quickly become adept at shoot-outs — most notably when they have to intercept a mob bookkeeper at a Chicago train station and a baby carriage gets in the way.
Winner: The Untouchables. Public Enemies has some beautifully intense sequences, but De Palma’s film is basically one stunning set-piece after another.

Verdict
Winner: A tie. It’s hard to match The Untouchables for sheer entertainment value, but Public Enemies‘ moody, ethereal take on the Dillinger saga is lovely and haunting.

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