"Mesrine, Public Enemy No. 1" — ★★★ — Vincent Cassel, Mathieu Amalric, Ludivine Sagnier, Olivier Gourmet; R (bloody brutal violence, a scene of sexuality, nudity and pervasive language); Tower
Jean-Francois Richet's two-part chronicle of the gangster Jacques Mesrine is framed within the "Bonnie & Clyde" hail of bullets that ended the notorious gangster's life. That's how part one, "Killer Instinct," of this two part action bio-drama begins. So of course, it's how "Public Enemy No. 1" ends.
But the lack of dramatic tension that knowing the ending before you being creates isn't a huge drawback to "Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1," the second half of this magnum opus. This film is about the gangster at his peak, his final daring prison escapes and the source of his notoriety.
This is the part of the story where the robber/killer became a media darling, at least in his own mind. Vincent Cassel's charismatic turn in the title role takes on a touch of megalomania. We've seen Mesrine turn on lovers in a flash, beat down those who give him too little "respect" with malice aforethought. His impulsive, semi-planned bank robberies and escapes seemingly reach a climax in Canada, when he and an associate return to their prison to keep a promise to break others out (they botch the job).
Now, we see Mesrine paying too much attention to his press clippings, his TV coverage. He revels in his notoriety, in his status as "Public Enemy No. 1." He seduces one more lover (Ludivine Sagnier) and takes on perhaps his best accomplice, fellow robber and escape artist Francois Besse (Bond villain and "Diving Bell and the Butterfly" star Mathieu Amalric).
But now, Mesrine frets over what is said about him. "On the street, I'm a star," he boasts.
An escape with Besse is followed by a brazen robbery of a Deauville casino, and here Richet (he co-wrote this) has his chance to change this "French Scarface" into a French "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," complete with river crossing. By this time, the late 1970s, every cop in France was after Mesrine. Legions of soldiers literally beat the bushes in pursuit of the bumbling robbers for whom yet another heist has gone awry. But the chase lacks urgency and humor.
French politics and political journalism comes into play as Mesrine hooks up with a terrorist (Gerard Lanvin) and poses, at least, as someone who might bring down the wrath of the world's terror groups on France if the cops don't back off.
And we meet the cop in charge of bringing him in, played by Olivier Gourmet.
But all these peripheral characters are given short shrift as the film stays focused on Cassel. And if you're not doing more with them than his, why split the movie into two parts? Why not boil the story down to two hard and tough hours?
As with "Mesrine: Killer Instinct," we aren't treated to the logistics of what it takes to keep a compulsive bank robber on the run. Money shows up. Safe houses are arranged. More banks are robbed. He tries another kidnapping.
There are more meticulously recreated chases and more disguises. But the second film, despite being longer, lacks the breadth of the first. Like "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," bloat sets in as the filmmakers fall in love with character and plot and grow more and more reluctant to leave anything out.
But it's a tribute to "Public Enemy No. 1" that the only film this half of the "Mesrine" epic truly falls short of, even in the country that has already given up "A Prophet," is "Killer Instinct," the first half of the story.
"Mesrine, Public Enemy No. 1" is rated R for bloody brutal violence, a scene of sexuality, nudity and pervasive language; running time: 133 minutes