Few would dispute the fact that Jacques Mesrine lived an eventful life. Last of the great French gangsters, police officers gunned down Mesrine in broad daylight in 1979. Jean-Francois Richet’s (Assault on Precinct 13) enthralling four-hour biopic is split into two parts: Killer Instinct and Public Enemy Number One. Vincent Cassel (La haine, Dobermann) takes lead duties, joined by the likes of Gerard Depardieu and Cecile De France in supporting roles.
I say supporting roles, Jean-Francois Richet’s exhilarating journey squeezes in so many bank robberies, prison escapes, kidnappings and murder, I’m surprised there was room for any support at all. Both films are available together on Blu-ray, which means you wont even have to get off your sofa, and believe me when I say it, you won't want to miss a thing.
Richet’s movie opens at the end of Mesrine’s journey, a brutal yet fitting finale to a life of violent crime. A truckload of armed policemen shot 19 rounds through his car windscreen, killing him instantly. We flash back twenty years to when Mesrine served in the French army; he’s already a conflicted soul and a gruelling torture sequence sets the scene for the rest of the movie. Over the next twenty years we are witness to daring heists, failed romances, arms smuggling and troubled family relations.
Mesrine was well known for his disguises, earning him the nickname of “The Man of a Hundred Faces”. Later in life he would earn himself a new nickname, the dubious honour of “French Public Enemy Number One”. But Jacques public image was important to him, especially in last few years of his life. Many regarded him as a romantic rogue, but the truth behind the legend will prove to be less kind. The facts speak for themselves, and in his own book, Mesrine claims to have killed 39 people. But don’t worry, they were all bad. Well, mostly…
Vincent Cassel owns this movie, and it’s a good job too because he’s rarely off screen. Killer Instinct introduces us to Mesrine at the start of his career. We spend some time with his family, just enough to realise that Jacques despised his weakling father and had little to do with his controlling mother. Mesrine falls in with kingpin Guido (Gerard Depardieu), and the life of violent crime comes naturally to him.
Of all the supporting players, Depardieu’s hefty presence is the most memorable. There is so much ground to cover, however, that even the important minor players are given little to work with; Killer Instinct brings together an assortment of set pieces and precious little else. There are moments of calm, in which the likes of Cassel and Cecile De France truly shine, but Richet barely pauses for breath. That’s not a criticism by the way, the first part of this double bill is all killer and no filler, with so much ground to cover, so it’s surprising how coherent Richet’s opening gambit is.
If part one wasn’t proof enough that this is Cassel’s movie, Public Enemy Number One seals the deal in dramatic fashion. Vincent’s portrayal of Mesrine is given room to breath in the second instalment, as he flirts with the media and a legend is born. In one startling scene he kidnaps and tortures a French journalist, just because he doesn’t like the articles being written about him. The film opens with shoot outs and bank heists galore. It’s a longer movie this time out. One that benefits greatly from the extra running time. Public Enemy Number One really finds its feet, however, when Cassel teams up with Mathieu Amalric’s fellow bank robber.
By this point, Mesrine’s self belief is at an all time high, and his delusions of grandeur become a focal point for the rest of the movie. That’s not to say there isn’t time for a little more criminal activity. In part two, Mesrine successfully kidnaps a millionaire and escapes with the ransom. There’s even time for romance. Ludivine Sagnier stands out from the crowd as new girlfriend Sylvia, the last loving relationship as it turns out. She’ll be forever known as the lone survivor of Mesrine’s execution on the outskirts of Paris. Unfortunately her dog wasn’t quite so lucky.
Mesrine’s eventual fate is one of the many highlights of Richet’s movie. We already know the final outcome of the film, but this time the prolonged finale is shown from the perspective of the so-called ‘good guys’. It’s a neat twist, and Mesrine’s final moments are captured with raw energy and a rare sense of cinematic satisfaction. It’s interesting to note that, after the shooting, complaints were made that Mesrine was not given any warning, that the police did not act in self-defence, and that Mesrine was actually assassinated by the French police force.
You can make up your own mind when you watch this extraordinary movie. And you will watch it, because Mesrine is one hell of a ride. In fact, if the romantic rogue was alive today, I’m pretty sure he’d be loving it too. AW