Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 Review

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The later career (1974-’79) of French outlaw Jacques Mesrine (Cassell), covering the bank robberies which made him France’s most wanted criminal, his partnership with a fellow prison escapee (Amalric), his relationship with free spirit Sylvie (Sagnier) an


Part Two of Jean-françois Richet’s epic-length biopic opens with the bloody aftermath of the set-up scene of part one, as Mesrine, riddled with bullets, is pulled out of his car. What happened to his girlfriend, and her dog? Who was responsible for the hit? How is Mesrine’s chin-bearded flic nemesis Broussard (Olivier Gourmet) involved? These questions simmer — a major clue was embedded in Gérard Depardieu’s final scene in part one — until the climax, which restages the first film’s prologue from the point of view of the gunmen stalking Mesrine. There’s also a clever joke about the array of period facial hairstyles on show throughout both films, as the dodgy wigs we took for production shortcuts turn out to be actual dodgy wigs worn by the fugitives.

If Part One was a series of snapshots of formative experiences and random crimes, Part Two picks up from Mesrine’s sense of being victimised by a society even more brutal than he is. After spells in tough prisons, Mesrine becomes more interested in a kind of counterculture rebellion (allying himself with the Red Brigades or the Baader-Meinhof Group) than simple crookedness and makes murky political connections. However, this pose is constantly challenged: in a remarkable sequence, Mesrine courts popularity by kidnapping a slumlord millionaire (Georges Wilson). The wily old man haggles on the grounds that the rest of his life won’t be long enough to be worth the ransom Mesrine has demanded, then punctures the gangster’s pride by insisting a real revolutionary would just kill an oppressor, not ask for money.

Vincent Cassel undergoes a De Niro-style transformation from the lean young spiv of part one to a paunchy, shallow, angrily smug celebrity bandit, and goes through an array of moustaches as Mesrine tries to keep in tune with a world that changes whenever he’s banged up. It’s a worthy addition to the roster of great gangster performances — sexy, violent, charming, petulant, paranoid and almost tragic, with a sense that Mesrine always knew he was only a gadfly, and could be swatted at any point by authorities who were no more committed to playing by the rules than he was. Ludivine Sagnier, ethereally alluring, has a less vivid ‘Bonnie’ character to play than Cecile De France did in part one, but the film pulls together all its developing threads and pays off in spades, arguably bettering what Steven Soderbergh or Quentin Tarantino managed with similar canvases.

An instant gangster classic.