MESRINE: L'ENNEMI PUBLIC No.1 (MESRINE: PART 2 - PUBLIC ENEMY No.1) Review
While L'INSTINCT DE MORT opened with a stylised, split-screen build up to the, for want of a better word, assassination of French criminal Jacques Mesrine, L'ENNEMI PUBLIC No.1 - begins with the chaotic aftermath, shot guerrilla-style from within the throngs of police, journalists and rubber-necking bystanders. Director Jean-Francois Richet again makes an open and almost confrontational statement before the credits roll that the events which follow are not the truth, but his own interpretation of them. It should also be noted that the script was surely, in part at least, based on Mesrine's own book, "L'Instinct De Mort", which we see him write and partially debunk, here.
Picking up the action in 1973, Jacques Mesrine is back in France after his North American escapades, now considerably heavier, perhaps slower, but certainly just as dangerous as before, with an increasingly hungry ego. His wish to be recognised as France's most dangerous man is soon granted, but is not nearly enough for him. The problem now, however, is that he is no longer taking on rival gangsters, but the nation's constabulary, and as his notoriety escalates, his life become increasingly unsettled, as he is instantly recognised wherever he goes and constantly on the run.
A new nemesis emerges in the form of Commissaire Broussard (Olivier Gourmet), who gamely declares his foe Public Enemy No.1 and whom, in the film's opening, we have already witnessed at the scene of Mesrine's death. However, Mesrine has no interest in developing a cat and mouse rivalry with this policeman, he is at war with civilised society as a whole, making increasingly outlandish declarations to the media and the courts about his future intentions, happily bandying around whatever political dogma he thinks might upset people the most. He has also fully embraced the notion that he will die, probably soon, in a hail of bullets, and seems perfectly at ease with his fate - a fact that is a constant source of friction between him and new squeeze, Sylvie (Ludivine Sagnier).
Never one to deny his wrongdoings, Mesrine frequently finds himself behind bars, only to escape just as often. On one such trip to the big house, he forms a turbulent, yet fruitful partnership with fellow inmate and serial escapee Francois Besse (Mathieu Almaric). The two soon find themselves on the lam and in cahoots, despite their wildly different personalities, methods and agendas.
Vincent Cassel is arguably even better here than in the previous instalment, piling on the pounds and sporting an increasingly bizarre and amusing range of disguises and hairpieces. He remains as charming, funny and completely terrifying as before, never slipping into more straightforward "bad guy" or "crazed psycho" mode - successfully retaining Mesrine's humanity throughout and in doing so, producing the finest work of his career. Cassel and Amalric are arguably the two finest French actors of their generation and watching them play off one another as they do here, makes sparks fly and produces cinematic gold.
Unlike Steven Soderbergh's CHE, which played (deliberately) as two very different films, the two parts of the MESRINE SAGA slide together seamlessly, effortlessly retaining the same immense tension and break-neck pacing throughout. It is often exhausting work, so the break is an advised and welcome one, but when L'ENNEMI PUBLIC No.1 begins, it is as if you never left this world and slip instantly back beside this bizarre and most charismatic of sociopaths.
The final frantic brutalism to which the police were ultimately forced to resort is understandable, if never justified. It is crystal clear just how untouchable this man became, how larger than life, how completely uncontrollable and as the film - and Cassel more than anyone else - pulls the audience tight to Mesrine's bosom, there is no denying that he was a violent force of nature that simply could not be contained.
As a piece of history, Mesrine's life of crime is audacious and horrifying, as an example of underhand police work it is as blatant and outrageous as it is ultimately somewhat excusable. But as a piece of Cinema, the MESRINE SAGA - which must really be held up as a single work certainly as much as something like Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy should - is an exhilarating, electrifying epic that strides instantly into the highest tier of the gangster genre and proves to be one of the very best films of the year.