Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (Day 96)

Mesrine Part 2 - Public Enemy #1My Opinion: 8.1 || Exciting gangster biopic dominated by Vincent Cassel as the title character. Thrilling performance. Vibrant writing and direction. Engrossing from start to finish.

TITLE: Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (L’ennemi public n°1)
DIRECTOR: Jean-François Richet
LANGUAGE: French | COUNTRY: France
YEAR: 2008
PROFILE: Crime Thriller | 133 minutes | IMDb (7.4)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of Netflix): Jacques Mesrine finds his star rising throughout the 1970s as both a gangster and a publicity-hungry celebrity. But while his criminal plans are as grandiose as ever, the Paris police are redoubling their efforts with a special anti-Mesrine unit.

Strengths: This is the second half of a two-part saga telling the story of Jacques Mesrine. I watched the first film, Mesrine: Killer Instinct, on Day 67 of this marathon and enjoyed it but had reservations. Its opening was electric (the best use I’ve ever seen of split screens), the direction was skilled, and Vincent Cassel was terrific. But the story felt overly familiar. Gangster is charming but easy to anger. Women are seduced. People are gunned down. Prisons are entered. It was strong execution of a rote story, and I wondered in my comments if the second film would have more to offer.

It does. Much more. As Mesrine hits the later stages of his career in this film, he becomes more complicated, colorful, and fun to follow. The action sequences have greater drama, the secondary characters are more intriguing, and it’s easier to see why this guy merits our interest.

Mesrine Public Enemy #1 (Vincent Cassel)

The depiction of France in the 1970s seems spot-on, and the film’s costume and makeup designers earn their pay as Mesrine advances through the years and myriad disguises. Cassel has a ball with every change, presenting a character who’s always magnetic if not always appealing.

Weaknesses: As in the first film, Richet and screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri sometimes introduces characters with no explanation and skips connective scenes. There are times when we’re left wondering, “Okay, how did Mesrine get out of that?” You can’t show everything, and these choices are probably the right ones, but we don’t always get a full appreciation for Mesrine’s criminal ingenuity because the mechanics are skipped over.

Mesrine’s multiple escapes are all well filmed and exciting, but his most difficult one does leave you scratching your head. Spoiler Alert, but breaking out of prison is sure a lot easier when they let your lawyer deliver loaded handguns. (She says, “I might get disbarred.” Um, yeah.) Again, it’s an exhilarating sequence, but instead of thinking “Boy that Mesrine is clever,” I was tilting my head and thinking, “Boy, French prisons are lame.”

Mesrine Public Enemy #1 (Vincent Cassel)

Characters/Performances: I don’t pay much attention to star profiles, but it seems to me that Vincent Cassel should have a bigger one. He’s handsome, versatile, and has charisma to burn. What he does in these two films is a clear highlight of my 100-movie marathon, with this performance being even more dynamic and memorable than the first.

Richet and Dafri pull of a deft bit of characterization in the film: They render Jacques Mesrine as an absorbing and even sympathetic character without bathing him in undeserved nobility or pathos. We never admire Mesrine’s integrity as much as he does, let alone see him as a hero, but we do recognize his mercurial, antisocial genius and understand his self-regard. The challenge in constructing any character is to make the contradictions fit — to reveal a person’s conflicting pieces and believably connect them. Richet, Dafri, and Cassel get impressively close to that by the end of Public Enemy #1.

Best Moment: There’s no scene here that equals the bravura split-screen opening of the first film, Killer Instinct, but there are number of very fine moments. Mesrine pays a farewell visit to his dying father that’s emotionally credible and touching. And a prison visit from his teenage daughter is beautifully presented. There’s also a sexy montage with Ludivine Sagnier that’s a marvel of sharp editing.

Mesrine Public Enemy #1 (Vincent Cassel)

The film’s best scenes, though, are the ones in which Mesrine holds court, first at his trial and then later with a reporter. Both scenes are smartly written, and Cassel is a dynamo — particularly in the interview, where his vigorous bullshit and headlong energy are riveting.

File Under: disguises, bank robbery, prison, escape, charisma, self-absorption, great performances, Jean-François Richet, Vincent Cassel