Film Review: Mesrine – Public Enemy Number One

26 Aug

*****

Picking up some five years after the close of Killer Instinct, this film’s significant other released just a few weeks ago in the UK, we’re now into the final furlong of Mesrine’s (Vincent Cassel) life, a period which will see him rise through the ranks of the French underworld to become, perhaps unsurprisingly, Public Enemy Number One.

Cassel is still on knock-out form as Jacques Mesrine, the confidence and bravado which powered him through the first film still present-and-correct as he continues to find himself in and out of French jail cells.

While the first film focused on Mesrine’s change of status from petty criminal to gangster, part two sees him become more politically minded, aligning himself with the wrong people in the shape of the PLO.

This time, instead of the hefty presence of Gérard Depardieu in Killer Instinct, Cassel is teamed up with another cult Gallic actor in the shape of the irrepressible Mathieu Amalric, seemingly contractually obliged to pop-up in every other film coming from across the Channel.

Amalric is Francois Besse, locked up in the same prison as Mesrine and just as eager to escape to freedom. Following yet another impressive jail break, the pair go on the run in an extended sequence which combines tension and humour as well as the joy of seeing two of today’s finest actors playing off each other.

This is a darker entity than its predecessor, the audience well aware from the opening seconds of both films that Mesrine will meet a bloody end. It’s the how, when and where of this end which adds an extra layer of suspense to a film already packed with incident.

Alongside the gunshots, witty one-liners, grandiose speeches and nicely choreographed action sequences we start to see Mesrine’s cockiness take its toll on both him and those around him.

Once the criminal’s cat-and-mouse routine with Commissioner Broussard (Olivier Gourmet) becomes a joke, it’s a sign that things can’t continue this way, a palpable feeling in the air that something big is about to happen.

When the end does come, director Jean-Francois Richet rewards his viewers with some clever camerawork which should make those who can recall the opening seconds of the first film smile broadly.

Public Enemy Number One might not be quite as flashy as its sibling but that’s more than made up for by the time taken to show a different side to Mesrine. Cassel remains both enigmatic and magnetic throughout, adding another layer to the character not present in Killer Instinct.

Though originally sure that simply lopping off thirty minutes and jamming the two films together would have been a better option than splitting them, I’ve come around to the fact that they deserve to be separated, Mesrine’s personality  so larger than life that he needs the extra space to breathe.

While it’s perhaps  un-PC to suggest that Cassel’s easy charm and Richel’s slick direction actually make the never-ending murder and violence look impressively cool, both films are shot through with enough moments that show our “hero” for the thug that he really was to just about tip the viewer back into moral indignation at his crimes.

If you haven’t seen the first film there’s probably not much point in seeing this one yet. If you’re lucky enough to come across any double bill screenings then sign-up as fast as you can – DVD will be a natural home for both films but these were made for the big screen.

Jonathan Melville

Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One opens in UK cinemas on Friday 28 August.

Read my review of Mesrine: Killer Instinct

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