REVIEW: Vincent Cassel's Gangster Saga Fizzles to an End in Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

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Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 picks up not where its predecessor (Mesrine: Killer Instinct, which opened last week) left off, but rather where that film's first scene left off: with the imminent demise of its title subject. In the opening scene we return to the Paris intersection where Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) was murdered in his car, and find the press feeding unchecked on his perforated corpse. It's a mirroring that doesn't bode well for those hoping that director Jean-François Richet might make the second half of his saga from scratch.

Alas, we cast back to 1973 and resume our position at the mouth of Richet's gangster grist mill, still grinding at a furious crank. Mesrine has returned to France from Canada, and is busy refurbishing his reputation as a showboat bank robber; his clutch move is hitting a second branch as the cops head to the first. The French police disgrace themselves several more times, unable to nab Mesrine in the innumerable shoot-outs he leads them into, or hold on to him when they do. During a hearing he kidnaps a judge right in the courtroom, ensuring his third escape from custody.

Upon reading that he has been branded "Public Enemy Number One" in the French papers, Mesrine's feathers seem to fan to full extension behind him, and he basks in not just the notoriety but also the identity bestowed on him. From that point on he counts his column inches like a Brentwood starlet, and casts about within this new idea of himself as someone with an image to uphold, and a public to satisfy.

The main and most enjoyable difference between the second installment and the first is the greater opportunity the latter provides Cassel to sketch some dimension into the coded mythologizing of his character. His self-fashioning is of course a form of buffoonery -- Mesrine has no beliefs beyond satisfying his own needs for money and attention, though he briefly fits himself for Robin Hood's cap and quiver -- and Cassel brings a megalomaniacal pathos to Mesrine's contradictions. Clearly a man of appetites (Richet's lens lingers on Cassel's bald, freshly popped belly, the product of a 45 pound weight gain), he likes food and women and nicely turned punchlines. He's also a self-serious, self-destructive child who exercises his charisma in calculated bursts. "It's how I am," he tells his father, after sneaking into the hospital room where he lays dying. "What can I say, dad? I'm sorry."

That's the extent of self-examination -- articulated and otherwise -- that writer Abdel Raouf Dafri allows Mesrine in the years that precede his increasingly certain death. Glimpses of his character are reflected by his relationship with Sylvia Jeanjacquot (the slinky, child-like Ludivine Sagnier), a hot moll who doesn't ask questions, and to a lesser extent his partnerships with François Besse (a stealthy Mathieu Amalric), a buttoned-up criminal ninja Mesrine meets in prison, and Charlie Bauer (Gérard Lanvin), a radical ex-con with dreams of overthrowing the system.

Left alone with Mesrine, as a Paris Match reporter is in 1978, there's too much BS flying around to know what to think. The famous interview in which Mesrine provoked the police and waxed proudly about his achievements is shot as a series of flashy sound bites, with Mesrine occasionally engaging the photographer present with a wink or a gunslinger pose. It's hard to tell whether Richet is spoofing Mesrine or colluding with him, though the surrounding film -- which in many ways reflects that scene's scattered, money shot approach -- suggests the latter. He's in prison, then he's out; he's in England, then he's back (though that transition is particularly unclear); he's being hunted by his arch enemy in the French police force (well-played by Olivier Gourmet) except when he's not; and he's a good cook and attentive, needy lover when he's not bashing the almighty brains out of a reporter who rubbed him the wrong way.

Charged with growing some connective tissue between well-known events and the contradictory behaviors of the iconic character at the center of them, Richet punts to his performers, discrete displays of stylistic virtuosity, and the inherent dramatic charge of the material. It makes for an exhausting, empty four hours. Fittingly, they are capped by a technically impressive final sequence that still manages to blow the explosive stores of dramatic irony buried right beneath its surface.


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