Although ‘Public Enemy’ adheres to the same tick-box approach to the narrative of Jacques Mesrine’s life, presenting us with a “greatest hits” compilation of prison breaks, shoot outs, verbal sparrings with judges and brutal retribution on gentlemen of the press who dare paint him as anything other than the Robin Hood figure he seems to believe he is, what makes it such a long haul is its inherent lack of suspense. We know how it’s going to end.
‘Killer Instinct’ opens with a terrific split screen sequence in which Mesrine and vampish consort Sylvia (Ludivine Sagnier) attempt a low-key flight from Paris, only to be ambushed by a bunch of gunmen in the back of a truck. The rest of ‘Killer Instinct’ plays out in defiance of its protagonist’s fate, and it’s precisely this attitude that gives the film its power.
I’ve watched the film twice now and really wanted to like it both times. And there are some effective moments – such as Mesrine playing to the gallery at a retrial, taking the piss out of the judge prior to pulling off a risky but ballsy escape – but there’s barely a frame that doesn’t betray how enamoured director Jean-François Richet has become with his subject. Two examples: Mesrine post-jailbreak romping with a couple of hookers while fellow escapee François Besse (Mathieu Alamric) tuts and shakes his head; and Mesrine coercing a family to get him through a roadblock, making the children laugh and giving the parents a big wad of cash as a thank you. The first example essentially says (adopts Cockney accent) “Oy oy saveloy, one o’ the lads, innit? He shoots he scores. Get in there, son, it’s yer birthday.” The second would have you believe (same accent) “Gor blimey, guv, that Mesrine geezer, he’s yer axshul bleedin’ Robin Hood, innit, stealin’ from the rich ‘n’ givin’ to the poor, Gawd bless him!” Both sentiments are total bollocks.
Cassel remains just as compelling in the lead role, so often rising above the script’s deficiencies; he really is one of the best actors in the business. The period evocation, here focusing on the 70s, is just as detailed and evocative as in ‘Killer Instinct’. And Ludivine Sagnier doesn’t just provide the romantic interest but matches Mesrine in all manner of badassery. She alone gives the film a frisson no-one else achieves.