Here’s the second part of the French crime epic that began last week with “Mesrine: Killer Instinct.” In the conclusion, the wayward path of France’s answer to John Dillinger spirals along to its inevitable bloody conclusion.
Jacques Mesrine carried on a cocky spree during the 1960s and ’70s, including four prison escapes (each of which is carefully detailed during the film saga). At the beginning of the first film, we saw his own demise: shot to death on a Paris street in 1979.
Needless to say, this is where part two, the forceful “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1” ends up. In the meantime, we follow the bulldozing Mesrine through a catalog of misadventures with a variety of partners.
He breaks out of one prison with the help of an experienced jailbird (Mathieu Amalric, “Quantum of Solace”), and gets out of a crowded courtroom by pulling a gun and holding it to the judge’s head. Nothing by half-measures; if he’s going to take a hostage in a courtroom, he might as well grab the judge.
Director Jean-Francois Richet knows how to slow the action down at the right moments, to give a syncopation to the mayhem. Such an interlude has Mesrine carefully explaining to a rural family how to get him and an accomplice through a police roadblock, a tense scene that ends with a couple of ironic touches — including an unfortunate outcome for half the loot from a robbery.
Vincent Cassel’s sensational performance as Mesrine continues here, but with a physical difference. For the second half of the saga, Cassel gained more than 40 pounds to inhabit the beefed-up Mesrine of middle age.
This only increases the heft Cassel brings to dominating each scene, whether it’s with his last girlfriend (an overwhelmed Ludivine Sagnier) or the somewhat foolish police inspector (Olivier Gourmet) who tracks him through the years.
With movies such as this, there’s always an issue about whether the film glamorizes this character, just by the sheer act of spending so much time in his presence. It’s a fair question, and the film doesn’t quite solve it, even though we see the immediate damage done by Mesrine’s rampage.
Give Cassel credit for keeping us aware of Mesrine’s less admirable qualities.
Mesrine had a great taste for the stardom of being a wanted criminal, which Cassel captures in his preening body language and sociopathic glare. As a public enemy, he relished and deserved his ranking.