Never heard of the guy, Jacques Mesrine, France’s Public Enemy No.1 during the 1970s, but it turns out that he (in the film anyway) has a certain amount in common with John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. Robbing banks, getting imprisoned, escaping (four times!), courting the press, being a celebrity and seeing himself as an honest villain and a friend of ‘the people’.
This film though is a lot grittier and works better in my opinion. Here Mesrine is also, quite frankly, a violent and brutal monster (jamming a gun into his innocent wife’s mouth as he tells her his friends are more important to him than her) yet Vincent Cassel’s terrific performance makes you like him, even when he’s smashing a glass into another thug’s face.
Split into two films ‘Mesrine – Part 1 – Death Instinct’ and ‘Mesrine – Part 2 – Public Enemy No 1’. This is a big budget two part movie and it shows. There’s a huge amount going on as the story moves chronologically through a series of events in the gangster’s life. There’s a thoughtful, interesting story with depth, tons of interesting characters, interspersed with action and a lot of violence. The whole shebang is skilfully executed by director Jean-François Richet who brings an element of authenticity and realism to it rather than Hollywood gloss.
Tiny spoiler alert: skip the next paragraph if you want to know nothing about what happens in the films.
I’m not really giving anything away in mentioning that the two movies are bookended by Mesrine’s death. What’s clever is although we know that he dies and how it happens during the opening titles of Part 1, when it’s played out again at the end of Part 2 it’s told from a different perspective with all that we now know about the man – and it still manages to rack up the suspense – even though you already know the outcome.
This is quality stuff, great film making and was a deserved mammoth hit in France. Don’t let the subtitles put you off. If you can see one film after the other – with a short break between the two to let you recover and get your breath back.