Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

‘Public Enemy No. 1’ begins the same way that the movie that preceded it, ‘Killer Instinct’ began, that with the audience observing notorious French Gangster Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) shot to death in the middle of a busy Parisian street, his twenty plus roller coaster years of criminal activity coming to a violent end. However even though the movies start similarly, the second part of Jean-Francois Richet’s biography into the life of Mesrine plays very differently from the first movie bringing down the action somewhat while exploring more of the character with both approaches creating a pair of very effective films with my personal opinion being that ‘Killer Instinct’ was the better of the two.

The Jacques Mesrine left behind in the first film was a criminal. Violent and misguided, with no apparent method to his madness and simply doing what he was doing because it felt good at that particular time. Can’t be mad at that. This time around though Jacques Mesrine, silent on the ‘s’… please… is feeling a little self important. And why not? There seems to be almost no consequences for my man’s actions, actions which consist of robbing banks at will and shooting police in the middle of crowded streets should they foolishly attempt to corral him, and even if they do manage to catch Mesrine, rest assured it won’t be long until he is out on the street again.

For instance Mesrine is being escorted via arm guard to stand trial for one of his many crimes against French society only to grab a strategically placed fire arm, snatch a judge as a hostage and now he’s free to rob, steal and pillage as he so pleases. Later on down the line Jacques will encounter the man who will become his arch nemesis, more or less, in Police Commissioner Broussard (Olivier Gourmet) who will eventually capture Mesrine, bring him to trial and have him locked away for twenty plus years. Jacques will make the most of these years he will spend in jail by writing a best selling book detailing his criminal exploits and reconnecting with his daughter, but captivity and Jacques Mesrine do not get along. Here Jacques makes the acquaintance of fellow habitual criminal and master escape artist Francois Besse (Mathieu Amalric), who is about as uptight a person you will ever want to meet, and the pair stage yet another spectacular escape and while on the outside commit even more spectacular crimes.

This is around the time Jacques perceived self-importance balloons to unconstrained proportions. No longer seeing himself as a common thief, he imagines himself to be a Freedom Fighter of sorts, kidnapping the rich and robbing banks in an effort to destroy a corrupt system that favors the wealthy, while fully supporting this system buy purchasing expensive gifts such as expensive automobiles, jewelry and luxury apartments for his new girlfriend Sylvie (Ludvine Sagnier). Jacques… man I tell you.

Eventually it all has to come down to where both movies started, Jacques Mesrine being on the wrong end of nineteen bullets from high powered rifles. You can’t be a legend if it doesn’t end for you just like that.

The main reason I found ‘Killer Instinct’ to be more entertaining than ‘Public Enemy No. 1’ is principally based on the fact I found the life of Jacques Mesrine the unrepentant gangster more interesting to spend time with than Jacques Mesrine the delusional freedom fighter. In my opinion ‘Killer Instinct’ was the movie that Michael Mann’s Dillinger biopic ‘Public Enemy’ should’ve been in making your subject matter larger than life, straddling the fine line between romance and disgust when examining our main characters pathologies.

But while ‘Public Enemy No. 1’ might not have been as entertaining as ‘Killer Instinct’ it does have more depth. Vincent Cassel has played variations of the Jacques Mesrine character in ‘Killer Instinct’ a number of times but this was a different type of character for the actor to play in this second part, and his performance drives this film. Cassel translates, without flaw, this characters inconsistent politics, his insane value system, his bloated vision of himself and his insatiable appetite for just about everything. The other characters in the movie are set forth to attempt to provide some kind of clarity to the Mesrine’s life, be it Besse who knows they are nothing more than criminals and should focus on just being that, his long time friend Charly (Gerard Lanvin) who is truly a leftist looking to destroy the system or his girlfriend who knows exactly that Mesrine’s life can only end in one way. He doesn’t listen to any of them.

My only question after watching both films would be did we really need two separate and distinct films to detail the life of this one man? Both films ran long and both films repeated a lot of the same points when describing this character to us, albeit using different scenarios. Would it have been possible for the filmmakers to eliminate some of the redundancy of both films and created one sensational movie instead of two very good movies? I don’t know. Regardless, ‘Public Enemy No. 1’ is a good movie by almost any measure carried away by back to back stellar performances from Vincent Cassel.

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