'Public Enemy' Wraps Up A Criminally Good Saga

Vincent Cassel

Going Out With A Bang: Vincent Cassel stars as bank robber Jacques Mesrine in Public Enemy Number One, the second half of Jean-Francois Richet's gangster epic. Music Box Films hide caption

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Mesrine: Public
Enemy No. 1

  • Director: Jean-Francois Richet
  • Genre: Foreign, Thriller, Crime
  • Running Time: 134 minutes
Rated R for bloody brutal violence, a scene of sexuality, nudity and pervasive language.

With: Vincent Cassel, Ludivine Saigner, Cecile De France, Gerard Depardieu, Roy DuPuis

In French with English subtitles


(Recommended)

Neither director Jean-Francois Richet's style nor gangster Jacques Mesrine's swagger falters in Public Enemy Number One, the exhilarating followup to Mesrine: Killer Instinct. With its shoot-outs, prison breaks and wild flights of ego, the saga's second half was sure to be watchable. But it's also smart, funny and incisive — both about Mesrine and about his era.

Anyone who's seen the first film knows how the second one ends. The movies are structured as a long flashback from its real-life protagonist's last moments on earth, rendered quickly in Killer Instinct and again, in much more detail, at the end of Public Enemy Number One.

No other final act was possible for Mesrine, played with fearful brio by the sharp-featured Vincent Cassel, France's De Niro. Not only did the bank robber and kidnapper repeatedly embarrass the police, notably with multiple escapes from their custody; he also began to spew rhetoric lifted from radical leftists, at a time when the members of the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhoff Gang were marked for death.

The two movies follow Mesrine — pronounced "May-reen," he insists more than once — from the Franco-Algerian War to the rise of the student left to the early days of hip-hop. In other words, from initiation into violence to radical chic to gangsta cool.

Frequently in disguise and sometimes assuming accents, Mesrine becomes something of an actor. He relishes being "on stage" — in the papers, on TV news — and selects as one of his targets the casino at Deauville, which figures prominently in classic French crime pictures.

Volatile and fearless, Mesrine can imagine himself John Dillinger, James Bond or Andreas Baader. He nurtures his reputation, even granting a magazine interview when keeping a low profile would be the wiser course. (The film's theory seems to be that Mesrine was trying to be equal to the times; he's angered when his exploits are pushed off the front page by Pinochet's coup in Chile, and inspired by leftist notions of insurrection to plan a campaign to blow up all of France's maximum-security prisons.)

Although less plot-driven than the first part, Public Enemy Number One introduces some additional characters: the starstruck "bourgeois" lawyer (Anne Consigny) who smuggles guns to Mesrine in prison; the jailbreak partner (Mathieu Amalric) who ultimately tires of his new cohort's flamboyance; the police commissioner (Olivier Gourmet) who shares champagne with his quarry as he arrests him; and the latest beauty (Ludivine Sagnier) in a series of stunning paramours.

Vincent Cassel, Ludivine Sagnier i i

Une Liaison Dangereuse: Mesrine's latest squeeze is Sylvia Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagnier), a beauty with expensive taste. Music Box Films hide caption

itoggle caption Music Box Films
Vincent Cassel, Ludivine Sagnier

Une Liaison Dangereuse: Mesrine's latest squeeze is Sylvia Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagnier), a beauty with expensive taste.

Music Box Films

Mesrine is quite the ladies's man, when his temper doesn't impair his chivalry. A professed enemy of bankers and other plutocrats, the gangster sees himself as a protector of women, children — not including his own neglected kids — and the working class. But the film repeatedly shows how this self-image is undermined. Self-preservation trumps nobility every time.

Any film about a flashy criminal threatens to glamorize its protagonist, but both Mesrine episodes are careful to detail the many goofs made by the crook and his accomplices. Waiting outside a bank, a getaway driver attracts cops by dumping cigarette butts in the street; during the same heist, Mesrine deafens his partner by firing his gun right next to the guy's ear.

A wittily edited retort to those dinner-jacket heist fantasies in which crimes proceed like clockwork, Public Enemy Number One is the tale of a half-mad man who strongarms his way to a notoriety he can't keep. Mesrine may be bigger than life, but he's not smarter than the average thug. (Recommended)

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