Mesrine: Public Enemy #1
‘Mesrine’ makes for a killer finish to gangster epic
When we last saw Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) at the end of “Mesrine: Killer Instinct,’’ the French murderer, bank robber, and kidnapper had ascended to the rank of modern-day legend. In “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1,’’ he makes the mistake of believing it.
But does writer-director Jean-François Richet? When all is said and done, does this four-hour, two-film gangster epic lionize the real Mesrine or view him as merely a particularly creative and charismatic thug? Certainly the script’s of two minds: When Mesrine, high on his own star power, brags to a wealthy kidnapping victim that he’s a revolutionary, the old man drily observes that a revolutionary wouldn’t be asking for money. At the same time, the film stands back in admiring awe at its subject’s outrageous charm and effrontery.
Covering the years from 1972 to 1979, “Public Enemy #1’’ is visually busier than “Killer Instinct’’: Robert Gantz’s camera gets right in the thick of the action, deliriously weaving and whirling up close. It’s as high on Mesrine’s crimes as he is, and Cassel exchanges the stolid tension of Part 1 for a manic theatricality. Escaping from high-security prisons twice more in this installment, Mesrine knows he’s a celebrity and he has the prison memoir and the gun-flashing photographs to prove it. “You’re in Paris Match’’ crows his slatternly dish of a girlfriend, Sylvie (Ludivine Sagnier, of “Swimming Pool’’). Laughs Mesrine, “It’s about time.’’
Such flouting of proper criminal behavior tends to annoy the police and fellow outlaws alike. Anti-Crime Commissioner Broussard (Olivier Gourmet) is a dandy with a mournful, bearded face and a slow burn — he knows he can afford to wait, and, besides, we saw Mesrine’s ultimate fate at the beginning of both movies (which makes the final 20 minutes of this one feel awfully drawn out). More amusing are the aghast looks on the faces of accomplices, like the humorless François Besse (Mathieu Almaric) and the genuinely radical Charly Bauer (Gérard Lanvin). The former accuses Mesrine of being a “spinning top,’’ which he accepts as a compliment. They didn’t make a movie about François, did they?
And it’s true that his mystique served as a sort of protective envelope, freeing Mesrine to dare things like walking into a police station to scope out its strength or pull a gun out of nowhere and kidnap the judge in his own trial. Just as long as you pronounce the name right — May-reen, not Mezz-reen — and just as long as you don’t taunt him in print, as a right-wing journalist (Alain Fromager) learns to his sorrow.
That’s the ugliest scene in a movie that could have used more of them. Richet lets the running time roll on past the two-hour mark and pads the final scenes; by the end, “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1’’ has turned nearly as flabby as its aging antihero. It’s a treat to watch the usually watchful Cassel cut loose, though. The actor understands the twin sources of Mesrine’s brutish joie de vivre: the realization that he can get away with almost anything in this world and the knowledge that he’s doomed to leave it violently. Where the movie struggles to bring its paradoxes to life, the star embodies them with an ease that’s downright criminal.