When we last saw Jacques Mesrine at the end of Mesrine: Killer Instinct, which played in Miami last week, the notorious French bank robber and habitual prison escapee was in the backwoods of Quebec, having just blown away two more policemen and figuring out his next move.
Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, the second in director Jean-Francois Richet's two-film epic about the life and death of the headline-grabbing criminal, picks up in the 1970s, after Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) has returned to his Paris home turf. There, he is soon arrested and makes another of his spectacular escapes, this one from a packed courtroom where he's been arraigned by a panel of judges under the guard of several armed policemen.
But Mesrine doesn't last too long as a free man: French authorities are too eager to put away this defiant thief who flaunts his ability to outwit them in the national press. Mesrine is once again caught and sent to prison, where he makes the acquaintance of the borderline psychotic criminal Francois (the usually civil Mathieu Amalric, effectively cast against type). The pair become instant, uneasy friends and they immediately begin plotting their escape from the maximum security facility.
Although it sounds a lot like Killer Instinct, Public Enemy #1 has a noticeably grimmer tone and pace. The contrast is reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's two-part biopic of Che, where the first film was imbued with the glory of victory (the Cuban Revolution) and the second haunted by a creeping sense of defeat and death. Mesrine has gotten older and thicker with age, but his swagger and hubris have grown even larger, and he fails to take notice of the considerable forces amassing against him.
Whether he's ripping off a Deauville casino (in a brazen robbery that should not in logistical terms have even been possible) or granting a self-glorifying interview to Paris Match, Mesrine continues to believe himself invincible and starts thinking of himself as a revolutionary out to tear down a corrupt society (shades of Che again). When he kidnaps a billionaire real estate mogul and demands a ransom of six million francs, he briefly toys with the idea of killing the man after the money is paid, just to prove a point. But we know Mesrine would never actually go that far.
Cassel, who won a Cesar (France's equivalent to the Oscar) for his performance, invests the character with a grounding of humanity and honor that imply there are certain lines even Mesrine would never cross. His relationship with Sylvie (Ludivine Sagnier), a high-priced escort who becomes his live-in girlfriend, is surprisingly domestic and tender. When his latest scam brings him a windfall of cash, he spends a lot of it buying jewelry and clothes for her, which she accepts eagerly (only when he catches her flirting with another man does Mesrine revert to his brutish self).
And despite his flagrant disregard for the law and the lives of those who work to uphold it, Mesrine remains honorable and loyal to those around him. He only loses his cool - and becomes sadistically violent - after a newspaper reporter writes a editorial blasting him. Mesrine's revenge on the journalist is ghastly and horrific, and it marks the true beginning of the end for his reign of crime, elevating him from gun-toting crook to sociopathic murderer.
From that point on, the police decided he had to go, due process of law be damned. The last 20 minutes of Public Enemy #1 revisit the events we glimpsed over the opening credits of Killer Instinct - the final moments of Mesrine's life - only this time Richet stretches them out for maximum suspense. Even though we know what's going to happen, the sequence is still taut and agonizing, unfold ing for the first time from the point of view of the detectives chasing Mesrine, who turn out to be far more afraid of him than he ever was of them. "Nobody kills me until I say so!'' Mesrine brags at one point - a boast that turns out to be hollow. Public Enemy #1 definitively settles the question of whether the filmmakers were glorifying their subject. His violent, pathetic end makes you sad not for the man but for a world in which such a creature could exist - and thrive.
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric, Samuel LeBihan, Gerard Lanvin.
Director: Jean-Francois Richet.
Screenwriter: Abdel Raoul Dafri.
Producers: Thomas Langmann, Maxime Remillard, Andre Rouleau.
A Music Box Films release. Running time: 133 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, violence, gore, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday Oct. 15 In Miami-Dade only at the Cosford.