Written by: Carroll Jenkins on June 18th, 2008
Theatrical Release Date: Theatrical Release Date: USA, November, 1996
Alternate Title: Public Enemy #1
Approximate running time: 95 minutes
Production Company: Trimark Pictures/Vidmark
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Director: Mark L. Lester
Writer: C. Courtney Joyner
Cinematograper: Misha Suslov
Cast: Leah Best, Chip Heller, Theresa Russell, Richard Eden, Tom Ward, Brent O’Plotnik, Trevor Meeks, Joseph Lindsey, Joe Dain, James Marsden, Gavin Harrison, Terry D. Seago, Brian Peck, Dan Cortese, Grant Cramer, Frank Stallone, Brenda Williams, Alyssa Milano, Eric Roberts
The Ma Barker myth has been frequent fodder for great and shoddy exploitation films ever since J. Edgar Hoover made the whole thing up to explain why she was riddled with bullets with one of her sons. Ma was actually just a mother (apparently not a very good one) and was not the leader of the Karpis / Barker gang. The legend of Ma Barker as ruthless criminal mastermind was perpetuated indirectly by James Hadley Chase’s notorious pulp novel No Orchids For Miss Blandish, which inspired Robert Altman’s excellent The Grissom Gang. Bloody Mama further fictionalized her exploits, this effort in particular serves as the general outline for Public Enemies.
Public Enemies is an epic tale spanning Kate’s childhood to her violent death at the hands of Melvin Purvis and the FBI. It is unbelievably fast paced and requires multiple viewings just to absorb all the events and especially the many minor characters. It has action, drama, humor, prostitution, heroin use, incest, alcoholism, and contains more gunfire and bloody squibs than the Wild Bunch.
The performances from the large cast of characters are always adequate, sometimes excellent, and occasionally superb. Even bit characters only appearing in a scene or two are memorable. Leading the cast is Theresa Russell in a terrific (and revealing) performance as the domineering and determined matriarch of the clan. She may be the element that holds the film together, but also notable are Frank Stallone as Alvin Karpis, Grant Kramer (Killer Klowns From Outer Space) as ‘G’ man Crowley, and James Marsden as her son Doc.
Who would have thought Mark L. Lester was capable of such an effort? Some of his films are certainly entertaining (Truck Stop Women, Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw), but hardly accomplished. Public Enemies is cohesive and engrossing despite the complexity of the plot, the sheer number of scenes, and the impressive direction of the large cast. Best of all, the movie is played seriously and is quite violent, but still infused with a quirky since of humor, irony, and perversity. In these aspects it’s obviously patterned after Bonnie And Clyde, just more so.
Note: Public Enemies was released on VHS in 1998 and to date there is no DVD release.