Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

Here’s irony for you: ‘Mesrine: Killer Instinct’, at 110 minutes, could have done with being at least half an hour longer to develop and expand the material; to give a real sense of the period of time that the film covers; while on the other hand the sluggish ‘Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1’, at two hours ten minutes, could have done with being at least twenty minutes shorter.

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.

‘Public Enemy’ starts with the bullet-riddled body of Mesrine being removed from his car, crime scene tape around the scene and police officers keeping the crowds back. The architect of this coup de grace is immediately revealed as Commissaire Broussard (Olivier Gourmet). A flashback has Mesrine being interrogated by Broussard post-arrest. Something about the structure the film falls into annoys already. It’s too self-conscious. Mesrine’s almost good-natured bantering with Broussard is evidently meant to come off as poignant or ironic in light of his inevitable demise as a result of Broussard’s operation, but it just reinforces the sense that ‘Public Enemy’ is a long haul towards a denouement we watched one movie ago.

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.

Late in the game, Richet seems to remember that Mesrine was stone-cold killer and throws in a weirdly protracted sequence in which the gangster lures a journalist who has impugned him a print with the promise of an exclusive interview only to deliver a beating and a burial alive. It’s a stark reminder of Mesrine as a dangerous and unpredictable man, and gives some indication of how dark and nasty ‘Public Enemy’ could have been, but coming after so much larking around and rose-tinted adulation, it just seems awkward.

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.

If Cassel’s Mesrine would sell his grandmother down the river to pull off a bank job or instigate a prison break, Sagnier’s Sylvia would make a priest kick a hole in a stained glass window. I know who I’d throw in my lot with.

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