Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

DIR: Jean-François Richet • WRI: Abdel Raouf Dafri, Jean-François Richet • PRO: Thomas Langmann, Maxime Rémillard, André Rouleau • DOP: Robert Gantz • ED: Bill Pankow, Hervé Schneid • DES: Emile Ghigo • CAST: Vincent Cassel, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric, Gérard Lanvin

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 doubles as the title and mission statement for this film. Focusing primarily on the actions and motivations of Jacque Mesrine (Vincent Cassell) in his unyielding quest for public infamy and media attention, the second part of this cinematic double bill proves a more charming, exciting and generally entertaining venture than Mesrine: Killer Instinct.

As this is the second half of a two-part film, there is a temptation to criticize it for being an incomplete tale. And it is. So criticize away. However, the viewer should find that this second film feels a lot more like a contained story rather than ‘Part 2’, which is to its merit. So, if you haven’t seen Killer Instinct, then Public Enemy No. 1 plays out, for the first half, as an exciting and humorous criminal caper. Blissfully unaware of the particularities of Mesrine’s past crimes, the viewer encounters Mesrine, a cheeky and roguish bank robber, whose razor wit makes him comical in the courtroom and admirably inventive as he escapes it. In fact, the ingenuity of his many escapes from the authorities compliments the excitement and tension of the action scenes. The concentrated excitement of the first act is diluted well with excellent dialogue, comical interchanges and a drop of sentimentality. Before long it’s difficult to resist the charms of this loveable thief. The viewer thinks, ‘He’s not that bad really.’ I think, ‘I should have skipped Part 1’.

There is probably a lesson in that, as within an hour Mesrine is back to his usual antics, beating women, terrorizing families, murder and naturally, kidnapping millionaires. Rather quickly, it should become clear to the viewer that Jacque Mesrine is agreeable, but only when he’s in a good mood. And he’s a grumpy sod too. So, more often than not his greed, impatience and selfishness become a fatal problem for those around him. Having seen the first instalment, any hope I had nurtured that this character may flower into a man of worth evaporated. At least he’s consistent though.

Despite my sustained dislike of Mesrine, this film does provide the viewer with food for thought. Starting with a reunion with his hospitalised father, scenes of insight into how Mesrine views himself, his actions, and, most interestingly, his motivations are presented throughout the film. These scenes should be digested before passing summary judgement on the man, as they provide a humanising effect, in contrast to his actions. It hammers home the point that Jacque Mesrine was still a father, still a son and still, despite his actions, a man, like any other. Personally, this was not enough for me to forgive the character. Perhaps other viewers will prove more sympathetic.

Don’t be fooled! As soon as you start to forgive him, he will find something unforgivable to do. I have given Jacque Mesrine many chances to sway me, to show me a glimmer of humanity worth rooting for. However, after two films I have little love for him. I may have been more forgiving if the man was even layered or intriguing. Had he been an unusual character, with peculiar ideas, I may have enjoyed the film for the questions it posed. However, he didn’t strike me as anything special. He was, simply put, lazy and cruel, and made no attempts to better himself. I feel no better for my education in the events of his life.
Once again, this should not be construed as criticism of the direction of Jean-François Richet. The pace of this film, specifically the first half, was impressive. Most scenes were rendered believable through a fluid yet kinetic use of the camera. Additionally, there is a noticeable effort at effectively portraying action and humour scenes. Most noticeably, Mesrine’s frequent use of costumes and disguises, a theme absent from the first film, went a long way to lighten the tone and relieve stress. And naturally the decision to focus on Mesrine’s justifications for his life of crime generated intrigue.

It should be mentioned, however, that the experience was marred by a half dozen instances of very poor editing, where scenes would jump and skip, sometimes mid sentence. The product was of a high enough standard that these proved only minor annoyances. Nevertheless, they diminished the film noticeably, which is a shame as it could have been avoided quite easily.

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 is a considerable improvement on the first with regards to the story being told, and how enjoyable the two hours in the cinema were overall. There is a lot more to like in this film, the humour and the spectacle of some scenes, primarily. However, it shares the same fatal flaw as its predecessor: this is a film that hinges entirely on its titular character. It succeeds if the audience find him agreeable. The man, at his core, was cruel, selfish and lazy. I could not find him agreeable. The film fails.

Jack McGlynn
(See biog here)

Rated 16 (See IFCO website for details)
Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 is released on 28th August 2009

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 – Official Website