The second installment of Jean-Francois Richet’s epic biography of the notorious French criminal Jacques Mesrine, subtitled “Public Enemy Number One,” isn’t quite as choppy as the first, which was subtitled (after his prison autobiography) “Killer Instinct,” but it’s still very episodic, and fails signally to get much beneath the surface of a man who, on the evidence of these films at least, was a pretty awful human being. One still wonders whether he deserves such exhaustive treatment.
The picture begins, as the earlier one did, with a sequence showing Mesrine and his girlfriend Sylvia (Ludivine Sagnier) ambushed by police units led by Commissaire Broussard (Olivier Gourmet) on a Paris street in 1979; this time it’s the aftermath that’s emphasized. The episode is dramatized far more elaborately at the close, but it’s clearly designed to recall the final scene of “Bonnie and Clyde,” with the frustrated cops having no intention of letting Mesrine survive.
Their reasons are made clear in the rest of the film, which covers the years from 1973 to 1979 and again shows the title character repeatedly eluding or escaping police custody. In fact, the theme of the picture seems to be the corruption, brutality and ineffectuality of the French law-enforcement system, which Mesrine constantly outwits or simply overwhelms. Even the climactic ambush seems badly done, since Broussard gets stuck in traffic and barely gets there, and as it’s staged one gets the inescapable idea that the cops could easily have killed Mesrine before he made his way to a crowded intersection where innocent passersby might have become collateral damage. (As it is, they manage to wound the girlfriend’s little dog!)
The other connecting thread is Mesrine’s desire to portray himself as a sort of Robin Hood figure with vaguely revolutionary tendencies. That explains the interviews he sometimes gives to the press, filled with bravado and threats against the establishment, and his linking up toward the close with true leftist Charlie (Gerard Lanvin). But his loutish character even in this connection is shown in a couple of sequences, one in which he brutalizes and kills a reporter (Alain Fromager) for writing disparaging things about him, and another in which he makes a big show of handing a wad of cash to a poor farming family—but only after he’s terrorized them into giving him a ride past police roadblocks.
Still, despite all the ground it covers, “Public Enemy” is less irritatingly disjointed than “Killer Instinct” was. It’s still basically one damn thing after another without much reflection or insight, but the episodes are longer this time around, and though Cassel isn’t given the opportunity to endow Mesrine with much more than bluster and egotism, he does hold the screen (as well as occasionally resembling Robert De Niro). He also gets to play off a couple of characters as colorful as the one Gerard Depardieu essayed in the previous picture. One is Francois (Mathieu Amalric), with whom Mesrine breaks out of one prison and whom he partners up with for awhile—a careful, methodical criminal who finally gets fed up with the guy’s flamboyant ways. Another is Henri Lelievre (Georges Wilson), an elderly man whom Mesrine kidnaps at one point, and who negotiates his own ransom.
Apart from Amalric and Wilson, the supporting cast don’t impress much; even Sagnier, who plays Sylvia as a ninny, is largely a cipher. As for Richet, he does build some suspense in a few sequences—merely by letting us wonder whether Mesrine is going to explode in violence. But even in those cases it’s primarily Cassel’s smoldering, and the intense music provided by Marco Beltrami and Marcus Trumpp, rather than any directorial cleverness, that does the job.
So we leave the second half of “Mesrine” wondering not only whether the man was as vacuously nasty as the picture suggests, but why Richet was so obsessed by him. Whatever fascination the character had for him, Richet doesn’t succeed in conveying to us.