Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mesrine Part 2: Public Enemy #1

Gangster and self-styled revolutionary Jacques Mesrine never lacked for nerve, but he might have started to believe his own hype. That never turns out well. At least we have reason to believe he will not go quietly at the conclusion of Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (trailer here), the second part of Jean-Fran├žois Richet’s two-film bio-epic, which opens this Friday in New York.

After his notorious detour through Quebec, Mesrine is back in France, plying his chosen trade. A celebrity criminal who assiduously cultivates the media, his capture becomes the top priority of Police Commissaire Broussard. Actually, catching the flamboyant Mesrine seems relatively easy. Keeping him behind bars was the tricky part. When he teams up with Fran├žois Besse, an unassuming but equally slippery fellow inmate, all bets are off.

Largely eschewing the personal drama of Killer Instinct, Enemy features two shoot ‘em up escapes sequences, a number of mostly disastrous capers, some cold blooded killing, and the brilliantly edited conclusion. Essentially, Public delivers the pay-off on Instinct’s emotional investment. Yet, all the really juicy supporting turns come in the second, action-driven film. As Besse, the perfectly cast Mathieu (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) Amalric is an intense counterpoint to blustery Mesrine. Likewise, Dardenne Brothers regular Olivier Gourmet brings some heft to Broussard, making him a worthy antagonist for Mesrine. Instinct standout Michel Duchaussoy also makes a brief but touching return appearance as the gangster’s meekly loving father.

Of course, it is problematic using terms like “hero” or even “anti-hero” with regards to the Mesrine films. He is presented as a consistently problematic figure, albeit one not without charm. Arguably though, it is his efforts to preserve his good press that contribute to his undoing. Vanity—it’s a killer.

While Instinct had the occasional slow patch, Enemy speeds along like an escaped fugitive. It is all held together by Vincent Cassel’s dynamic lead performance and the film’s cool retro 70’s look. Of course, the Mesrine films are best seen as a whole, but of the duology, Enemy is definitely the superior film. It opens this Friday (9/3) in New York at Angelika and AMC Empire 25.