Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 31, 2010

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Jacques Mesrine lived the back half of his career not just like a gangster movie, but like a sequel. Bigger and louder than its predecessor, part two of the César-fêted diptych on the notorious French criminal is also better. True, it’s just more of the same— robberies, shootouts, prison escapes, kidnappings and a revolving-door cast of accomplices, babes and tacky hairdos—but it has the next-level insanity required of good action sequels.

Vincent Cassel, as our reckless, charismatic hood, now with a swelling gut, also seems more on board, finally in full Casselian swagger as the man he was born to play. Each reel boasts a new, outlandish and all-too-true episode, each of which sounds like (and is filmed like) the kind of thing you’d only see in movies. Mesrine escapes a bank robbery on an elevated train. Mesrine writes his memoirs, confessing to 40 murders, while awaiting trial. Mesrine escapes trial by nabbing a planted pistol in a court bathroom and holding a judge hostage. Later, for his third prison break, Mesrine coaxes his lawyer (Anne Consigny) to sneak in guns.

Mesrine’s life was so clearly made for the movies—there’s barely a dull moment in the two films’ 246 minutes—that it almost doesn’t matter this is a Wikipedia Movie: a formless blob that simply acts out his greatest hits with minimal commentary. It lacks the bold structure of Bronson and the strong perspective of Olivier Assayas’ forthcoming (and even longer) Carlos the Jackal epic Carlos.

Traces of strong themes are introduced, then disappear; Mesrine’s mixed relationship with the press gets minimal treatment. Our antihero’s gory demise suggests the police have stooped to his level or arguably lower, but aren’t enough of a presence in the rest of the film for the idea to stick.

What Mesrine does have is a sexy portrait of ’70s banditry, joining the ranks of The Baader-Meinhof Complex and (again) Carlos—films that summon a lost era when thievery, murder and terrorism could seem, at least in one sense, cool.

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