I hadn't heard of Jacques Mesrine, or of this biopic about him, but when I found out what it was all about, I had to see it. L'ennemi public n°1 is a two part French film starring Vincent Cassel as the famed public enemy number one Jacques Mesrine (pronounced may-reen, but more French-like). This was directed by Jean-François Richet who has previously done the average Assault on Precinct 13 remake, and Richet seriously banks good will with even simply the first part of this movie, called L'instinct de mort, named after the book Mesrine wrote while in prison. Let's get into it, shall we?
It's 1959 and Jacques Mesrine has just got back from a tour of duty in Algeria, where he may or may not have ignored the Geneva conventions and killed some prisoners-of-war. He's bored with his stale life and rebukes his parents' offer of a steady job at the factory. Instead, he and his friend Paul start burgling houses and paying up to Guido, the local crime boss. Eventually Mesrine becomes a close employee of Guido. At the same time, Mesrine indulges in his fascination with a prostitute named Sarah. When Sarah is horribly injured by her pimp, which is Mesrine's fault, Mesrine and Guido take the pimp to a country villa, and brutally stab him and bury him alive. Mesrine the soldier is being replaced by Mesrine the anarchist.
He meets his wife, Sophia, in Spain while on vacation, and once back in his native France, they have three beautiful babies. However, men like Mesrine could never settle down. He does a stint in prison, and when he comes back, he vows to go straight for the sake of his children. But he can't. He is Jacques Mesrine and Sophia abandons him.
Mesrine meets Sylvie, who he would eventually call his wife, and they enact a string of armed robberies together. But when a rival gang tries to shoot him in broad daylight along with his daughter, Mesrine takes Sylvie to Montreal, where they end up kidnapping a millionaire and robbing a bunch of banks. So much for laying low. Mesrine is called Public Enemy Number One by the Canadian government. Their time as Bonnie and Clyde come to an end in an impressive Arizona desert car chase. Extradited to Canada, they are sentenced to prison. For Mesrine, the prison is brutal and horrible.
Along with his friend Jean-Paul, they daringly escape, rob two banks in the same day, and return to the prison to help others escape, resulting in a huge bloody shootout that takes out as many guards as it does prisoners.
Once Mesrine and Jean-Paul leave the bloodbath, they swear to each other to live by either freedom or death. Upon which, Mesrine executes the forest ranger who snuck up on them. The first part ends with this amazing moment.
This movie is balls-to-the-wall action, but with style, subtlety and engaging performances. Cassel is a standout in his role as Mesrine. He comes across as bad-ass, but broken, the man ever chasing the high from crime, but never catching it. L'instinct de mort benefits from the spectacular life that Mesrine had which simply screams movie.
Not only does this movie have bad-ass moments like Mesrine punching a glass into a man's mouth while he drinks from it, but it has a kidnapping gone wrong, a desert car chase, two prison escape attempts, and a couple massive shootouts and Mesrine just doing what he does. It's like a couple action movies stuffed into one, but it never feels overlong or poorly paced at a breakneck speed. The film gets a chance to breathe with moments after the crazy incidents, when you get to see him watch TV, or hang out with his buddies.
Richet directs this like a documentary, in the Paul Greengrass-Steven Soderbergh style. It's like we're the crew following Mesrine along, watching him rip shit up. The shaky camerawork can be exhausting for some people, but I've always been a fan of it. Richet includes some fun split-screen sequences, and an amazing colour palette of blues and reds to make what's already good into great.
What astonishes me is that according to the reviews, part one is the lesser of the two parts. They say that the second part, confusingly titled L'ennemi public n° 1 as well, is absolutely perfect and way better than the first. (The reason why the title is confusing is that in France, the movie is called Mesrine: L'instinct de mort and Mesrine: L'ennemi public n° 1. As opposed to outside France, where the movie is called Public Enemy Number One Parts One and Two)
I can't wait to watch the second part, considering that I absolutely loved this film. It was exciting, interesting, dynamic and never boring, so I have high expectations for the conclusion. Check back here in a couple days for my review of the final part of L'ennemi public n° 1!