If you’re interested in reading about the film Cold Weather (Katz, 2010) or Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life from 1956 check them out here:
Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 is the second film chronicling the rise and fall of the charismatic gangster Jacques Mesrine (pronounced “May-reen” as he reminds us throughout part 2). Not as interesting as the first one, this film starts with Mesrine doing what he does best – robbing banks. In act I, about 45 minutes of the 130 in this movie is a series of bank robberies and kidnappings with various partners-in-crime.
The underlying tensions and subplots in Public Enemy #1 are three: Mesrine’s love affair with Sylvia (the always awesome Ludivine Sagnier), the attempts by police chief Broussard (Olivier Gourmet from the Dardenne film The Son) to capture Mesrine, and Mesrine’s own confused ego, through which he mixes up politics and crime.
The latter of these three is what keeps, aside from general action, this second-part film going. That and, of course, another fantastic performance from Vincent Cassel.
The problem with Public Enemy #1 is not only that it lacks the emotional depth and plot variety of the first one, but also that the director criminally underuses Broussard. Richet seems to want to play up the cat-and-mouse, pseudo-friendship between two men, both of whom are desperate in their own way – Mesrine to evade the law, Broussard to catch him. It’s sort of like the classic example in Michael Mann’s excellent film Heat.
But Richet falls short in that he and screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri find the criminally daring heists irresistible and refuse to sacrifice any of, what ultimately become fairly repetitive sequences, for deeper character excavation. It’s a tough job because the Mesrine films are really setting out to pander to two audiences: the action/gangster/heist viewer, and the semi-arthouse (for US audiences, in that it’s foreign) character study. Some films (see the recent A Prophet) are much more adept at riding this line. Richet comes close, but even the dialogue between Broussard and Mesrine during one tense standoff flails around and falls into cliche machismo rather than turning the cliche on its head.
What I wouldn’t give for one meaningful conversation, or even silent moment, between these two men.
What made the first film much more successful is simply the structure of the overall. In Killer Instinct Mesrine has not yet acquired his full arrogance. Therefore, much of the script is him “finding his way,” forcing Richet to tone down the action at times so we can relate more to the character.