Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (2008)
Director: Jean-Francois Richet
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric
Synopsis: The story of notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine.
L’ennemi public no. 1, a biopic about the infamous French gangster Jacques Mesrine, is reminiscent of those old Warner Bros. flicks of the 1930s in which the likes of Jimmy Cagney played immensely charismatic bad guys that the audience could root for up until the obligatory final-reel death scene. We know Mesrine is going to die, not only because history tells us so, but because the film shows us his death from the outset. (For the purposes of this review, I’ll consider this two-part film as one single movie).
Presumably the reason for this is so that the film and the viewer can focus all their attention on trying to understand the man, and the reasons behind his turning to crime with such unbridled, swashbuckling enthusiasm. His problem with authority is made plain from the outset when we see Mesrine as a soldier in Algeria, choosing to shoot a suspected terrorist under interrogation rather than the suspect’s sister as ordered by an officer. Out of the army, Mesrine finds it difficult to adjust and takes naturally to a life of crime with a friend who introduces him to an underworld Mr. Big (Gerard Depardieu giving a terrific performance). Brief chances of respectability are quickly snatched away, and Mesrine submerges himself deeper into a life of crime until his inevitable capture.
The first film shows the forming of Mesrine into a professional criminal, and ends with a shot of him through a window smeared with the blood of a hapless security guard. It’s clear there is now no going back or escape from crime, and the second film chronicles the exploits of Mesrine as the finished product. The film seems to work hard to make us admire him, and is aided immeasurably by an appealing performance by Vincent Cassel. Mesrine embraces life, and has about him the cavalier devil-may-care attitude of a movie hero. In a way it’s refreshing to see a film deliberately avoid portraying a villain as an out-and-out socio- or psychopath. Mesrine can take criticism from friends and colleagues without exploding, he has a firm grasp on reality and, with a few notable exceptions, uses violence only as a tool of his profession. But it also creates the suspicion that maybe we’re seeing a rather one-sided depiction of the man, and that he is essentially a decent man turned bad by society. Only a couple of episodes — when Cassel uses psychological violence on his wife and horrific physical violence on a reporter who has dishonoured him in print — suggest there is a darker side to him, but we don’t see enough of this to consider the portrayal to be a truly balanced one.
Nevertheless, the film is close to superb, with terrific action set-pieces and moments of real tension. You’ll find yourself liking Mesrine despite yourself — which might mean you have to question the film’s objectives — thanks to Cassel’s charismatic performance and the character’s buccaneering ways which pander to most people’s sneaking admiration for those who choose to live outside the rules that confine the rest of us.