Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (2008)
By: Julian on May 3, 2010  | 
Madman | Region 4, PAL | 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced) | French DD 5.1 | 236 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Jean-François Richet
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Cécile de France, Gerard Dépardieu, Roy Dupuis
Screenplay: Abdel Raouf Dafri, Jean-François Richet
Country: France
External Links
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Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, based on Jacques Mesrine's autobiography The Death Instinct is divided into two parts, both feature length. I saw the first, Killer Instinct, at the 2009 French Film Festival in Brisbane and was impressed by director Jean-François Richet's visual style and command. Richet, who helmed the terrific Assault on Precinct 13 remake, isn't quite as consistent across the four hours he devotes to France's master criminal Jacques Mesrine; while Killer Instinct is a sweeping, eminently brilliant look at Mesrine's rise to power that evokes comparisons to Scorsese and Leone, the second part occasionally has a TV movie-of-the-week feel. As one unit, though, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (I'll refer to the film as Mesrine so as to avoid confusion between talking about the film as a whole and just the second part) is a real achievement: it only tires occasionally during its 246 minutes and establishes Richet as a formidable suspense director.

The film begins with Jacques Mesrine's (Vincent Cassel) tour of duty in the Algerian War, where he is witness to various atrocities and traumas. He returns to France in the late fifties and begins a life of petty crime that escalates to increasingly daring bank heists and home invasions. He escapes to Canada with his mistress Jeanne Schneider (Cécile de France) where he ties up and robs the rich owner of the house he and Schneider have been hired to maintain.

Mesrine and Schneider escape to the United States but are caught and extradited. Mesrine is sent to St Vincent de Paul Prison, a maximum security facility in Quebec that he plots his escape from the second the bars have shut behind him. Mesrine succeeds, making him an internationally wanted criminal and, riding on the coattails of his notoriety, he positions himself as a folk hero, a sort of Robin Hood living in an exile imposed by a greedy, capitalist government. With his personal life in tatters and allies and lovers moving in and out of his life, Mesrine's infamy is all he has until the police close in for the final time.

The ending is inevitable, whether or not you're aware of Jacques Mesrine's career (and for those wishing to avoid spoilers, refrain from reading the blurb on the Madman disc). Killer Instinct is a powerhouse of a gangster film and at slightly shy of two hours, Richet and Abdel Raouf Darfi's screenplay moves at a cracking pace, taking a few liberties but generally charting Mesrine's criminal career with reasonable accuracy.

Richet's direction is impressive: from the sequences in Algeria, to the American South and Canada, the Parisian director directs an epic picture. His first feature since he loosely remade John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, Richet knows a thing or two about directing action scenes and it shows: Mesrine's escape from St Vincent de Paul is particularly frenetic. However, that's not to say Richet doesn't know how to elicit top performances from his actors: it's top-quality stuff across the board, particularly Vincent Cassel's depiction of Jacques Mesrine. Cassel deserves every bit of acclaim he receives and more as one of France's premier thesps: his ability as a character actor is every bit as good as De Niro or Nicholson's in their prime. His on-screen chemistry with Cécile de France, an actress many horror fans would recognise as High Tension's star, is subtle and perfectly refined, and Gérard Depardieu and Roy Dupuis also turn in exceptional performances.

However, Public Enemy #1 is a three-star second half married to the five-star first. It is by no means a poor film, but it's certainly more sluggish than Killer Instinct and the majority of the story seems to round on Mesrine's self-styled folk hero status. It resists the glamorous gangster cliché but Richet and Darfi don't exactly pull it off; Mesrine comes across as an ineffectual, politically-occupied mewling hippie, with his freshly grown bush of facial hair and prodigious media releases. This does make his character more infuriating in his contradictions – Mesrine doesn't bat an eyelid presenting himself as a revolutionary after his exploits living large. But the transition comes without enough lead in, and there's at least half an hour in Public Enemy #1 that could have been excised in favour of more storytelling in this respect. But the pay-off for four-hours of criminal rise and fall is spectacular, and impeccably handled by Richet.

Mesrine won a few accolades at the César Awards, the Gallic equivalent of the AFI Awards, Oscars or BAFTAs, with Cassel's performance and Richet's direction being rightfully recognised. This is a must-see.
Both parts are presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen. It's crystal clear. Robert Gantz is responsible for Mesrine's smooth, lovingly shot visuals. Gantz collaborated with Richet for Assault on Precinct 13, but was also DP for Renny Harlin's action-thriller Mindhunters.
Two French soundtracks are available, in 5.1 and 2.0. The 5.1 is terrific.
Extra Features
Sadly, not a great deal, just theatrical trailers. A decent doco on Mesrine would have been great. For a making of, the R2 is the way to go.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Mesrine is a terrific film and it's absolutely crucial to watch both parts as a whole. Public Enemy #1 is the weak link, but both parts showcase Richet's directorial skill and Cassel's magnetism and charisma, affirming his place as one of Europe's leading men. At just under $40 this is a pricey set, but it is essential viewing for fans of gangster cinema.

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