“Public Enemy” – A.J. Hakari

The appeal of The French Connection was not in watching a particularly good “cops and robbers” story, but rather it was in the character of Popeye Doyle himself. Far from the noble crusader for justice that most cops were depicted as at the time, Popeye blurred the line between cop and crook, a man whose shifty ethics and means of going about his job made for an all the more interesting character. The South Korean crime saga Public Enemy attempts to go the same route, featuring a main character who abides by the law as much as Tom Green makes good movies. But although you can see a truly hard-boiled thriller in the making here, this sort of film ends up being almost beaten into submission by the awkward storytelling and aimless subplots that run rampant for most of the running time.


Public Enemy focuses on two morally ambiguous individuals on different sides of the law. Cheol-jung (Sol Kyung-gu) is a detective who mostly ignores the rules and deals with the city’s criminal ilk his own way (which often means not at all). Gyu-hwan (Lee Sung-jae) is a well-to-do businessman with a loving family, plenty of cash — and a habit of slicing and dicing anyone who does him the slightest wrong. Under intense scrutiny after Internal Affairs starts looking into his department’s dirty dealings, Cheol-jung tries to build himself a respectable image by actually going after the bad guys for once. But while on a stakeout one dark and stormy night, he has a run-in with Gyu-hwan, who’s fleeing the scene of his latest grisly murder, setting off a game of cat-and-mouse between the two men that both grow determined to win at all costs.


It’s not that Public Enemy doesn’t have a good head on its shoulders. It’s just that that head has all the stability of Linda Blair after chugging a case of Red Bulls. I’ll admit, the story is a real corker, ripe with the potential for all sorts of ironic situations to emerge and spark the viewer’s interest. But it often comes to pass during the film that those working behind the scenes find themselves with enough energy to either build up the characters or advance the plot, but not enough to do both at once. If you happen to find yourself watching Public Enemy, don’t be surprised to find that just when the flick really starts cooking and looks like it’ll have a magnificent take-off, it crashes back to earth and starts the process all over again. It’s definitely not deserving of the 140-minute running time it clocks in with, especially since too much of it is comprised of supporting characters who drift in and out of the picture whenever they please, not to mention whole sections where the script goes out of its way to try to add some comic relief, only to fail and do so miserably.


More than anything, though, Public Enemy is hurt most by good old confused storytelling. There’s not much mystery surrounding the plot, since you know that Gyu-hwan is a twisted killer from the get-go, but that’s okay, since the story focuses more on the relationship between him and Cheol-jung, especially the frustration the latter experiences in trying to incriminate the former. But what little mystery that works its way into the story is displaced and flat-out forgotten about, until the movie realizes that, oh yeah, Cheol-jung has a case to solve. By this time, however, the movie’s almost over, and what the flick does to reel viewers back in (including a random fight scene or two that comes out of left field) is too little, too late. Still, Public Enemy isn’t a total dud, and that’s mostly thanks to the two lead actors and the moments of their shared dynamic that really sizzle. Sol Kyung-gu does terrific work as a man whose increasing devotion to catching this mad killer slowly molds him into a better cop, and Lee Sung-jae proves to be a worthy adversary, maintaining a creepily cool performance as a dude who would stab you in the neck just as soon as he’d check your stock portfolio.


Public Enemy doesn’t piddle away as much time and celluloid as a crime drama like Bloody Ties does, since something constructive is going on at least some of the time. But such instances don’t occur enough to lift the muddled plot out of the doldrums it’s frequently ensnared in, always keeping the film at a distance from the potential you can see it almost desperately wanting to seize.


Rating: ★★☆☆


-A.J. Hakari


Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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