Mesrine: Public Enemy #1

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Review (-/10)
(By John P. Meyer)

Most Americans will never have even heard of Jacques Mesrine, which is hard to fathom, given the jaw-droppingly bold, often reckless, and undoubtedly fearless exploits of this modern-era Frankish criminal superstar. Mesrine ranks right up there with John Dillinger in terms of extra-legal accomplishments such as prison escapes (4), banks robbed (I lost count), and girlfriend attractiveness. (At least, as portrayed in the films by actresses such as Elena Anaya, Cécile De France, and Ludivine Sagnier.)

Mesrine's relative obscurity will make his dramatized life story a hard sell for U.S. moviegoers, who — in order to experience the full Mesrine oeuvre — will need to see both films by director Jean-François Richet currently playing in area art house cinemas: Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1. This dramatic double tap amounts to just over four hours of screen time, with Part 1 running 113 minutes and Part 2 stretching out for 133 minutes.

For those who do decide to devote the time, the experience will be a thrilling one, highlighted by a stellar performance from Vincent Cassel as the gangsterish title character. (Watch for Cassel opposite Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in Aronofsky's upcoming ballet-themed feature, Black Swan.)

It's certainly possible to see either film on its own without the other (since they variously begin and end with the final chapter of Jacques Mesrine's violent, bloody history), though if a person were going to choose only one (in instances where there can BE only one), I'd suggest going the Public Enemy route: This installment chronicles Mesrine at the top of his brutal and larcenous game.

In Mesrine: Killer Instinct, we travel back to 1959, where we observe Jacques Mesrine as a French soldier in Algeria. Obviously, it's here that the seeds of his brutality are planted (or at least nourished), as he's called upon to execute a captured (then tortured) resistance fighter. The offhand manner in which he pulls the trigger would suggest that he's done this often enough before to have it become routine.

Mesrine's criminal career begins not long after his return to Paris. He takes up burglary with a buddy who's connected to a local crime boss (Gérard Depardieu as Guido — one of many good reasons to see Part 1). Mesrine proves a quick study at the criminal game, accomplishing one of the slickest "caught in the act" recoveries imaginable when he and his partner are confronted by a returning homeowner.

When Guido gets wind of his new associate's familiarity with violence, he promotes Mesrine into a sort of mob enforcer role — an undertaking which Mesrine embraces with relish.

After marrying and fathering a child with a lovely and innocent Spanish woman named Sofia (Elena Anaya) who he meets on holiday, Mesrine's wandering eye and reckless manner soon find him taking up with an extremely adventurous French ingenue named Jeanne (Cécile De France, smolderingly sexy in librarian glasses). On the occasion of their first meeting, Jeanne tells Mesrine she's up for anything. Little does she know he'll soon have her holding a gun on a terrified group of patrons at a nearby banking establishment.

Mesrine spends some time behind bars in a Canadian "Special Corrections Unit" whose formalized activities include beatings, gassings, high-pressure water sprays, and an assortment of mind-frack techniques designed to produce sleep deprivation and a general breakdown of prisoner resistance. (Not to mention sanity.) Mesrine, unbroken, engineers his way out, and promises his fellow inmates he'll come back for them. (Which he does. Like Chuck Norris.)

Part 1 culminates, improbably enough, with Jeanne and Jacques being apprehended in their convertible by a cavalcade of state troopers, with Monument Valley as a scenic backdrop. (John Ford and Sergio Leone, eat your hearts out.) Their attempted kidnapping of a wealthy Canadian businessman has gone badly, though Mesrine's celebrity status gets a boost.
Photo, taken 2010-09-02 14:21:14

While Killer Instinct shows off a range of director Richet's stylistic flourishes (he makes good and frequent use of split screens and mirror images to variously advance the story and give us a sense of his characters' internal complexities), Public Enemy goes directly and unambiguously to the jugular, concentrating on bank robbery derring-do, car chases (and crashes), and bullet-whizzing boulevard fusillades.

By this point in his career (1973-1979), Mesrine has attained legendary status, and is seen by some as a kind of counter-culture revolutionary hero — a perception he encourages by granting private interviews with members of the press, and even sitting down in front of a typewriter to record his personal autobiographical ramblings for posterity. He also hooks up with his last and perhaps most stunningly beautiful girlfriend (in terms of film portrayals): Sylvie Jeanjacquot, enacted with saucy sensual abandon by Ludivine Sagnier (seen most recently, along with Mlle. De France, in A Secret).

Ironically, it's a violent disagreement with a member of the Fourth Estate that cooks Mesrine's goose once and for all. He takes umbrage with the uncomplimentary published remarks of a journalist named Jacques Dallier (Alain Fromager), and goes so far as to abduct, beat, and shoot the poor fellow, leaving him for dead. This seems to be the last straw for both the police and the French government, who pull out all the stops to track down — and eliminate — Jacques Mesrine, once and for all.

As mentioned, we've already gotten a good look at what's going to happen to Mesrine and Sylvie, because their swansong appearance is previewed at the very start of Part 1. The last reel of Part 2 gives us a look at this deadly encounter through the eyes of the police, which makes for a fascinating behind-the-scenes alternative view. We hear walkie-talkie transmissions back and forth from the hidden operatives (in trash bins, in parked vehicles, behind fences) to their command vehicle, as they practically wet themselves at Mesrine's advancing proximity.

Watch for a sympathetic supporting performance by Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace's Dominic Greene) in Public Enemy. He plays a fellow federal prisoner (and escapee) named François Besse, who admires Mesrine for his craft and daring but can't abide his ego and his dangerous devotion to the limelight.

Never heard of Mesrine? You'll be able to tell your pals all about him after viewing Richet's bloody good (and good & bloody) two-part movie history.

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