by Tony Dayoub
A couple of weeks ago I caught an interview with Vincent Cassel on Charlie Rose in which, while promoting his Mesrine two-parter, he explained his approach to famed bank robber Jacques Mesrine. Chief among his demands on the film's producers was his desire to play the man as the criminal he was, not the mythical Robin Hood he portrayed hiself as in his memoir. So my expectation going into the second part, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (L'ennemi public n°1), was that this film would be the grittier and more overtly critical of the two films, a takedown of the roguish image depicted in Mesrine: Killer Instinct (reviewed here). Imagine my disappointment when, midway through the film, Jacques gives a 100,000 francs to a poor family who just smuggled him through a police roadblock, thanking them for their service.
That is but one overcharged "moment" in the film. I called the first film episodic, but Public Enemy #1 plays like a highlight reel for the gangster, presenting every incident of importance with a perfunctoriness that mars the most banal biopics. Mesrine was a master of disguise, so let's show him wearing some wigs as he pulls the wool over the gendarme's eyes. Hey, his father died—obligatory hospital deathbed scene... oh, and throw a doctor's disguise on him, why don't you? You say he wrote an autobiography? Let's see him start typing it in his cell. Did you hear about the time he kidnapped the judge right out of the courtroom during his trial? Or what about when he killed the reporter who libeled his, uh, rotten name?
Where are Mesrine's motivations? What drives him to keep trying to top his previous antics? Try as Cassel might (and he does a commendable job with the weak material) to give us a peek at the demons driving Mesrine, director Jean-François Richet undermines him at every turn by focusing on the flashier elements of the narrative. Richet seems more concerned with modeling each movie's look after the gangster films contemporaneous to the period covered in each (Killer Instinct looks like a Melville; Public Enemy #1 recalls Friedkin). The result is a glossy but hollow coverage of the outlaw which yields nothing more than any simple book report by a grade schooler would.
Actors like Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace) and Ludivine Sagnier (Swimming Pool) are wasted in little more than walk-on parts, just as Elena Anaya (Sex and Lucia)was in the first part. Cassel only fares better because his is the only character allowed to breathe a bit in the diptych's 4 1/2 hour running time. But Mesrine's arc is a limited one despite the luxury of a lengthy appearance onscreen. Frustratingly, one cannot help but sympathize with the reckless robber because of the overwhelming amount of time spent in his company. That may explain why the filmmakers soon give in to presenting the more benevolent side of Mesrine. It also clarifies why there is such little irony in scenes where Mesrine starts to shift to political dogma when he tries to justify his banditry as an outgrowth of the revolutionary mood of the times. Yes, the movie does counter his assertions with scenes where he's clearly in it for the money; it just doesn't counter them strongly enough.
Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 squanders the backstory provided by its predecessor. Its protagonist, so richly layered by the potent application of Cassel's charisma in Killer Instinct, ends up a scattershot cipher in this one with the film ending up as hollow as its hero. In another, better executed film I'd say this was deliberate. But like Jacques Mesrine's reputation, I think it was just an unfortunate side effect.