Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (France, 2008)

September 01, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 Poster

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 concludes the story begun in Mesrine: Killer Instinct. Although the two pieces can be seen as halves of a whole, it's not hard to understand why the project was bisected. Shootouts, prison escapes, and random acts of violence can become repetitive but there's less monotony associated with viewing such things in two separate two-hour chunks than in an unbroken span of four hours. Although Killer Instinct is the better of the two parts, Public Enemy No. 1 is a worthy continuation, providing closure to a tale that was interrupted just as things were getting really interesting. Public Enemy No. 1 is less concerned with character building than its predecessor; the second film features considerably more action followed by some intriguing material about how the main figure manipulated his public image. The Mesrine of Killer Instinct was a psychopath; the Mesrine of Public Enemy No. 1 is a narcissist.

The portrait of gangster Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) in Public Enemy No. 1 is less balanced than the one in Killer Instinct, perhaps because Mesrine's autobiography, which formed the basis of the first film, is no longer in play (he is seen writing it in an early scene). The Killer Instinct Mesrine is a violent, volatile individual capable of acts of surprising gallantry and unalloyed brutality. In Public Enemy No. 1, the character is more like the unconventional folk hero Mesrine promoted himself as being; there are only a few instances in which the monster comes out of the cage. Toward the end, Mesrine allies himself with a "revolutionary" cause and sets himself up as a kind of anti-government crusader.

Killer Instinct concludes in 1972, with Mesrine and his compatriot robbing banks in Canada. At the beginning of Public Enemy No. 1, Mesrine has returned to France and is on a crime spree. He is captured but escapes by taking a judge hostage during his trial. He remains free for a few months but is eventually cornered and jailed. After serving only a fraction of his 20-year sentence, he and a fellow prisoner, François Besse (Matthew Amalric), break out and go on the run. Mesrine hooks up with Sylvie Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagnier), who will be his female companion for the rest of his life. He revels in his designation as France's #1 Public Enemy and grants candid interviews to magazines. Seeing that Mesrine is no longer merely interested in robbing banks, Besse leaves, and Mesrine begins to consort with Communist radicals. He meets his end on November 2, 1979, when the police lure him into an ambush. He is killed and Sylvie is seriously injured.

Because it's more action-oriented than Killer Instinct, Public Enemy No. 1 is faster paced and, although longer by nearly 30 minutes, feels about the same length. Since we recognize that Mesrine is going to be gunned down by police (something shown in the opening scene of Killer Instinct and reprised at the start of Public Enemy No. 1), the final third of the movie is a build-up to the inevitable. Nearly all infamous gangsters meet their ends in memorable fashion, whether it's John Dillinger outside the Biograph Theater, Bonnie & Clyde at the hands of a posse in Louisiana, or Jacques Mesrine at Porte de Clignancourt.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Public Enemy No. 1 is following the fueling of Mesrine's ego. No longer content with being a mere "bank robber," he wants to be known and celebrated around the world. He doesn't perceive himself as a bad person and seems genuinely surprised and puzzled when a journalist asks him if he is "dangerous." He takes an active role in shaping his legend, going so far as to viciously attack a writer who pens disparaging articles about him. He is as protective of his image as any criminal and likes making audacious public proclamations. When a pair of prostitutes learns his identity, they act as if they are in the presence of a celebrity.

Vincent Cassel continues the titanic performance he began in Killer Instinct, providing a portrait of a larger-than-life villain whose personality has almost entirely been engulfed by his mythos. Mesrine sees himself as charming, but there's a sense of menace lurking beneath the charismatic smile. He's a master of disguise - a characteristic that allows Cassel to change his appearance from scene to scene. Not since Jimmy Cagney in Man of a Thousand Faces has an actor inhabited so many guises. Cassel is joined by recognizable co-stars - Ludivine Sagnier (the sexpot in Swimming Pool) and Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) - but no one comes close to upstaging him. As much as was true of Killer Instinct, he owns this movie.

Public Enemy No. 1 can be seen on its own - there is nothing in the text that demands familiarity with Killer Instinct - although, unsurprisingly, it works better when watched in concert with the other film. Together, the two parts provide a fascinating portrayal of one of the great French anti-heroes of the post-World War II era. It's a lurid, violent tale, which is what one expects from a production of this sort, with the only significant complaints being inconsistencies in tone and a tendency to jump suddenly from one event to another. The length is mitigated by the decision to split Mesrine, although the desire to see the story through from beginning to end may make this a more appealing choice for home viewing than theatrical exhibition.

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (France, 2008)

Run Time: 2:13
U.S. Release Date: 2010-09-03
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: In French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1