Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

  • 2008
  • Movie
  • R
  • Crime

Director Jean-Francois Richet and co-writer Abdel Raouf Dafri’s engrossing two-part crime saga careens to a particularly unsatisfying conclusion with Mesrine: Public Enemy #1. Though the film largely hums along at an even more satisfying pace than its lively predecessor and packs a powerful emotional punch while dealing with issues of family, it’s all...read more

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Reviewed by Jason Buchanan
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Director Jean-Francois Richet and co-writer Abdel Raouf Dafri’s engrossing two-part crime saga careens to a particularly unsatisfying conclusion with Mesrine: Public Enemy #1. Though the film largely hums along at an even more satisfying pace than its lively predecessor and packs a powerful emotional punch while dealing with issues of family, it’s all for naught thanks to Richet and Dafri’s inexplicable decision to cap off the entire story with a drawn-out and less stylized version of the very same scene that kick-started the whole thing.

In retrospect, the filmmakers essentially sabotaged their own efforts by choosing to open the first film with Mesrine’s brutal demise, as it completely saps all of the tension out of what is otherwise a suspenseful, well-executed climax. Yet, despite this major flaw in structure, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 is more hit than miss -- a thoughtful, highly entertaining reflection on a complex criminal-turned-wannabe revolutionary constructed around a performance that will no doubt rank among Vincent Cassel’s best.

Returning to France following his exile in Canada, famed criminal Jacques Mesrine (Cassel) teams up with Michel Ardouin (Samuel Le Bihan) to carry out a series of brazen daytime bank robberies. When Mesrine’s luck runs out and he once again lands behind bars, he conspires with fellow inmate Francois (Mattieu Amalric) to hatch an ingenious escape plan, and before long the criminal pair is back on the outside, living the high life. A deep divide begins to open between the two escapees, however, when Mesrine begins to view himself as a revolutionary rather than a common thief. Frustrated by his partner's shift in perspective, Francois decides to strike out on his own. Later, after rekindling his romance with his girlfriend Sylvia (Ludivine Sagnier), Mesrine seeks out the advice of leftist radical Charlie (Gerard Lanvin) and together the two men lure a prominent reporter into a deadly trap -- an act that prompts police to step up their efforts to take Public Enemy No. 1 off the streets for good.

As the action in Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 gets under way, Jacques Mesrine begins to see himself as untouchable. Given that the second and final chapter of the story is even longer than the first, it was a smart move for the writers to front-load the film with Mesrine’s daring courtroom escape and an exciting heist scene. The energy generated from the escape scene, in particular, goes a long way in helping to carry the film into its more reflective second half, and toward the grim climax we all know is coming. By placing Mesrine’s final conversation with his father between those particular scenes, Richet and Dafri highlight the complex emotions of a criminal who recognizes the anguish he has brought upon his family, yet callously refuses to do what it takes to be a good father and son. A poignant meeting between Mesrine and his now-grown daughter is a masterpiece of minimalism as the actors' skillfull convey years of bottled up emotions with little more than a few lines of dialogue. It’s virtually the last time we see Mesrine as a “mortal” before he willingly transforms himself into a larger-than-life celebrity with his best-selling fictionalized biography, L’Instinct de Mort, and by contrasting that controversial public figure against the image of a man who failed his family and children, the screenwriters give the story a compelling dynamic that’s strengthened by Cassel’s wonderfully textured performance.

Although the Mesrine saga can largely be considered a one-man show, co-star Amalric also throws off impressive sparks as a the notorious bank robber’s twitchy partner in crime, effectively counterbalancing his cohort’s easygoing charm with a foreboding unpredictability, and an icy glare intense enough to freeze lava. Olivier Gourmet makes a big impression as the determined Commissioner Broussard from the anti-crime unit, and the scene in which Mesrine and his lawful counterpart match wits during a most unusual arrest balances humor and tension in a way that’s deeply unsettling, and highly indicative of each man’s true character. Haggard Lanvin imbues the character of Charlie Bauer a chewed-up, fight-the-system presence that feels entirely genuine, and gives the conversations in which he and Mesrine debate the difference between revolutionaries and gangsters real gravity.

If only Richet and Dafri had taken the care to conclude the sprawling crime saga without essentially repeating themselves at the climax, they may have turned out a genuine masterpiece. From the nail-biting prison break sequences to the spectacular courtroom escape and the multiple masterfully executed heists (and even the final ambush), the screenwriting partners prove without a doubt that they have a firm grasp on the tools required to build tension, and the tragic human aspects of both films complement the intensity of the more action oriented scenes wonderfully. The nonlinear storytelling technique employed by Richet and Dafri can yield extremely powerful results when it all comes together, but it’s a hard feat to pull off and they simply come up a bit short when it matters most. However, lest that imperfection prevent some curious viewers from committing to the entire 246 minutes, it should be noted that the filmmakers get more right than they do wrong,and that even if the film is as flawed as its controversial subject, Mesrine’s story is one that begs to be told on the big screen. Much like the man himself, it still makes a big impact.

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  • Released: 2008
  • Rating: R
  • Review: Director Jean-Francois Richet and co-writer Abdel Raouf Dafri’s engrossing two-part crime saga careens to a particularly unsatisfying conclusion with Mesrine: Public Enemy #1. Though the film largely hums along at an even more satisfying pace than its live… (more)

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