Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (Review)

Vincent Cassel rules again in tale of real-life French gangster

Nov 17, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Part two of the lean, explosive, unsentimental French biopic of that country’s most notorious gangster of the modern era, Jacques Mesrine, has just as much rivetingly realistic, kinetically filmed excitement and great acting as part one, which is just finishing its run at the Esquire Theatre. Public Enemy No. 1 basically covers Mesrine’s life in France in the 1970s — one of numerous bank robberies, shoot-outs with police, prison and courtroom escapes, lovemaking with beautiful women, prideful boasts to anyone who’ll listen and occasionally frightening outbursts of violent anger — that finally ends with a veritable assassination by police.

The action in the film — directed by Jean-Francois Richet from a screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri (with Richet) — happens furiously fast and unfolds with verite-style breathlessly tense realism in the assured hands of cinematographer Robert Gantz. There is barely time for expository transitions. But what there is time for is the amazingly alive, alert and downright magnetic performance by Vincent Cassel as the chameleon-like Mesrine.

Looking like a combination of Bruce Springsteen and Raging Bull-era Robert De Niro (including a sizable paunch as he ages), with moments of Robert Mitchum-like late-period heavy-lidded sadness alternating with a mischievous sparkle, Cassell keeps you watching every scene he’s in. And that’s every scene.

While this is not a panderingly sympathetic portrayal, it’s hard to not feel the character’s sense of loss in short, tender scenes with his daughter and dying father. Public Enemy No. 1 also has excellent supporting acting — especially Mathieu Amalrec (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) as a far more cautious criminal accomplice and Georges Wilson (who since has died) as an elderly millionaire who takes a fatalistic attitude toward his kidnapping by Mesrine. Grade: A

Opens Nov. 19. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.