Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 – Movie Review

The second half of the French gangster series drags a bit at the end but is fun, macho stuff nonetheless.

“Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1” is the second of a two part series about the iconic career criminal Jacques Mesrine, the “John Dillinger” of French criminals. Dillinger was a depression-era criminal who captured the hearts of many Americans with his imaginative and daring prison escapes and his occasional “Robin Hood” bravado of redistributing wealth.

The wealth redistribution was a hit because most Americans blamed the overfed bankers for causing the recession and for many American workers losing their homes and being thrown into poverty. Not much different from today, actually.

Mesrine was as good as or better than Dillinger when it came to escaping from prisons. In fact, Mesrine actually went back to the prison and assaulted it from the outside in an attempt to break other prisoners free. He was totally out of control, making Dillinger look as cool and collected as James Bond

Part 2 of the series, “Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1,” tells the story of the last half of the French criminal’s life when he was actively engaged in violent crime and was constantly on the run from the law.

He makes tracks around the world, seemingly one step ahead of prison as he darts in and out of Canada and several other countries before being rounded up back to France.

Throughout is the pervasive feeling that the end is coming soon.

The direction of this film by Jean-François Richet is excellent, as is the production overall. The lead role is played by Vincent Cassel who won the César for Best Actor for both parts one and two of this film. He has two additional Cesar nominations to his credit.

He has succeeded in combining the necessary bravado of the violent criminal with a soft underbelly of vulnerability traced to Mesrine’s dysfunctional relationship with his father. Throughout the film, Cassel is able to combine Mesrine’s acts of violence, and even heroism, with his subliminal dread of impending doom and a pervasive lack of self worth.

Cécile De France plays Jeanne Schneider, the girlfriend Mesrine took up with in 1966 and shared with whom he shared his flight across three continents and some of his initial, spectacular, publicity. De France is great in this film although the Mesrine character gets most of the screen time.

She claims four Cesar nominations including three wins for Quand j’étais chanteur (2006) and Les poupées russes (2005) and L’auberge espagnole (2002).

Both of the Mesrine films, parts one and two, are great action flicks although they stray into serious escapist territory. A-number one “guy stuff” with lots of macho action. Cassel plays a good gangster but he is not as good as Pacino in “Scarface” or Cagney in “Public Enemy.” He is able to project the correct image of the flawed and trapped person who is a criminal because he has few real alternatives.

The undercurrents of the Algerian rebellion and the Algerian massacre in Paris add strength to the film as they help place Mesrine firmly in the camp of the traumatized perpetrator. The character is all the more scary when we understand that he has good reason to be insane.

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Directed by: Jean-François Richet
Written by: Abdel Raouf Dafri (scenario)
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Ludivine Sagnier and Mathieu Amalric
Release: August 27, 2010
MPAA: Rated R for bloody brutal violence, a scene of sexuality, nudity and pervasive language
Runtime: 133 minutes
Country: France / Canada
Language: French / English
Color: Color