If director Jean-François Richet hadn’t already etched his name on the world cinema map with part one of his acclaimed double bill, ‘Mesrine Killer Instinct’, the second part has certainly done the trick. This intelligent, action-packed gangster thriller flows smoothly, allowing audiences to get to know the man behind the title.
Where ‘...Killer Instinct’ introduced audiences to the infamous bank robber Jacques Mesrine, part two of this excellent biopic allows us to experience and savour the action and a unique period in French politics. The film picks up where the first left off, with the criminal career of a middle-aged Mesrine from 1974-79. Just as part one opened with his violent death in November 1979, ‘...Public Enemy Number One’ opens with a bullet-holed and blood smeared Mesrine and his girlfriend, Sylvie (Sagnier). Richet works his way back from there.
Following an armed robbery, he is arrested, jailed and tortured but despite a bruised ego, his spirit isn’t broken. Aided by another inmate (recent Bond villain Amalric), Mesrine escapes - more determined than ever to continue his life of crime. Siding with the Red Brigade and feeling victimised by the French government, he is determined to force the authorities to change their ways. However, it's difficult to assess how loyal he is to revolutionary politics: his primary concern seems to be self-promotion.
To this end Mesrine continues to keep the public on his side with numerous high-profile crimes, including the kidnapping of an unpopular millionaire industrialist. What he hasn’t bargained on is developing a liking for the old man who, despite being 82, plays hardball with Mesrine in what are some of the film’s most amusing scenes.
In a number of major and highly paid interviews during his life, such as those for Paris Match, Mesrine espoused popular beliefs: “When I rob a bank I don’t feel I’m breaking the law: I feel that I’m robbing even bigger robbers.” These beliefs guaranteed him the support of the people, many of whom were also impressed by his multilingual skills, wit and womanising ways. Mesrine lived by his own set of unorthodox morals, intensely loyal to friends and family, in his own way - he did abandon his children and his final gesture to his wife, before she fled, was placing a loaded gun in her mouth. Although viewed as a Robin Hood figure by many, there's little evidence that he redistributed his wealth and of course there were many who detested and feared his violent, unlawful actions.
In the film we find out why Mesrine wrote his 1977 autobiography, 'L'Instinct de Mort', upon which the films are roughly based. He confesses to 40 murders and reveals why he chose a life of crime: “I don’t like laws. I don’t want to be a slave to an alarm clock.” Neither is he under any illusion about his fate: "Frankly, I don’t think I’ll live very long - they’ll shoot me down.”
In the end he does run out of friends, money and escape routes. As one law enforcer put it: “There are no clean gangsters, there are only gangsters." Mesrine's violence and law-breaking knew no bounds, as he turned on anyone who got in his way. In the end the humiliated French government turned on him with great force.
Undergoing a De Niro-like ‘Raging Bull’ transformation, Cassel gained 20lbs for this role, adding dark contact lenses and a variety of hairstyles (both facial and crown) to complete the menacing look. The film was shot over nine months in reverse, allowing Cassel to lose the weight as he journeyed backwards through Mesrine’s life. He has already won numerous awards and will no doubt continue to win more for portraying the man he has described as "a real French rebel without a cause".
While there is no doubt about whose film this is, Cassel is ably supported by an array of French talent, most notably this time around by Almaric and Sagnier.
Director Richet and his co-writer Abdel Raouf Dafri will undoubtedly enjoy international success on the back of the double bill. The authentic locations, gripping set pieces, action and dialogue are gelled expertly together, making 'Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One' the best gangster film of the year so far. It may have taken 30 years but given his love of fame, Jacques Mesrine would no doubt be in his element to learn that he has become a household name, not only in France but across the world.