Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One starts the way it ends, and it’s an end that, in keeping with the reckless lifestyle led by one of the most notorious gangsters in France during the 1960s (as seen in the first part of the film released last month Mesrine: Killer Instinct) and in the 1970s, was always going to be inevitable – his criminal activities curtailed by his public execution by the secret police on a busy intersection on the streets of Paris.
The opening of Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One adopts a tone that sets the second half of the two-part film distinct from Mesrine: Killer Instinct. Much more heavily built (Vincent Cassel putting on 20kg for the role and losing it during the making of the two films which were shot together in reverse order), the Jacques Mesrine of the 70s is a different man from the small-time gangster who would reach the status of Public Enemy No. 1 through a series of audacious bank robberies, assassinations and kidnappings, evading the law by emigrating to Canada, chased half-way across the United States and captured there, only to escape from high security prison – one of four prison breaks that Mesrine achieved in his career.
Those semi-planned, partly-opportunistic breaks from prison form the main set-pieces of the second film and are a further indication of the direction explored – that of a gangster trying to live up to his reputation and his promises to evade justice. Forging new alliances and continuing his spree of bank robberies and kidnappings, Mesrine is however unsatisfied with how he is portrayed to the public by the press, undertaking the writing of his own sensationalised autobiography while in prison biding his time before his next escape. Casting around to find justification for his thuggish behaviour and criminal tendencies, Mesrine also starts to mix with political activists and align himself with terrorist organisations like the Red Brigade in Italy, who have just achieved notoriety for their kidnapping and killing of the eminent politician Aldo Moro, and with the PLO. Mesrine wants to forge an image of himself as being an opponent of the state, fighting to bring down the system, but his thinking is confused and his ideology, actions and lifestyle are almost in direct opposition to the aims of the extremist terrorist and liberation groups. His involvement however gives the French secret police all the more reason and justification to hunt him down and eliminate him.
While Public Enemy Number One then is not quite as much an all-out action thriller – albeit one based on a real-life figure – as Killer Instinct, it does then at least take the time to try and make some sense of the man behind the notoriety, even if finding any deeper level of considered motivation in such a figure remains elusive. Structurally, the second film also has a more difficult challenge, and if it doesn’t quite justify another two-and-a-quarter-hour movie, Jean-François Richet at least keeps events moving purposefully through some fine set-piece sequences – Mesrine’s escape from court and his prison break with Besse are truly thrilling, while the building of tension surrounding the police operation to assassinate Mesrine is also masterfully paced. The attention to 70’s period detail is also notably very well achieved, capturing the mood of the period without resorting to pastiche.
Elsewhere the film is also well balanced in terms of tone and characterisation, on the one hand capturing Mesrine’s playful teasing of the police and the courts, but on the other showing his ruthless brutality when it comes to dealing with a reporter who has criticised him in the press. The film is aided considerably in this respect by an excellent cast that in addition to a career best from Cassel includes a bulked-up Samuel Le Bihan as another of Mesrine’s heavies, Mathieu Amalric as his accomplice in crime Besse, Ludivine Sagnier as his latest bit of skirt (women don’t really feature prominently as anything else in these films), and Olivier Gourmet as his nemesis on the French police force, Broussard. Public Enemy Number One may suffer a little from the fact that the continued recounting of the extraordinary events in the life of Jacques Mesrine doesn’t have quite the same shock impact of the astonishing first part, but balancing biopic and crime thriller elements well, collectively this is a fine piece of cinema.