Mesrine: Public Enemy #1

Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

A big commotion ensues when France’s most wanted criminal, Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is shot to death in his BMW while on his way to leave the country with his girlfriend (Ludivine Sagnier). Jumping back to 1973, Mesrine is apprehended for robbing two banks that happen to be right across from one another. For the sake of time, the plan is to rob only one. However, Mesrine just cannot overlook such a golden opportunity to hit the system, one he considers to be corrupt and evil, where it hurt.

“Mesrine: Public Enemy #1,” written by Abdel Raouf Dafri, turns its focus on robbing banks, chases, and narrow escapes which, in theory, should have provided a sense of excitement. While the material manages to deliver some thrills via reaching a synergy of imagery and score, these jolts of intense emotions are not enough for the film to stand on its own. It is unfortunate because the struggle in making Mesrine a complex figure is almost palpable.

On one hand, there are some interesting scenes which argue that despite Mesrine’s actions, he is very human and capable of feeling. A most moving scene is arguably the one shared between the imprisoned criminal and the daughter he never had the chance to raise and get to know. The way Mesrine looks her child, now on the verge of adulthood, after years of not laying eyes on her commands a power that goes far beyond a rain of bullets piercing through metals and body parts. When he looks at her, his gaze is so sensitive yet piercing, I felt as if he sees her very soul, their differences to be celebrated, and that he is almost proud she is not like him.

On the other hand, Mesrine’s personal politics is executed vaguely at its best and confusingly at its worst. Although we are given a chance to observe and listen to his fiery reactions when he is, for example, misrepresented on the newspapers or, worse, not mentioned at all, not once does the writing really delve into the psychology in terms of why he wishes to subvert the system so badly.

Although Cassel’s acting is sublime, the subtleties in the writing are not as consistently present so the performer is dragged down along with it. Instead, the priority seems to be on the colorful characters that work with Mesrine. For instance, there is François Besse (Mathieu Amalric), an inmate that Mesrine befriends to help him escape and eventual partner in stealing from banks. The duo are able to work together but since the scenes they share are choppy at times, there is very little dramatic build-up which then causes their schism to feel more like a device to advance the plot rather than a friendship or partnership that changes something in Mesrine as a person and a symbol of society’s id run amok.

Furthermore, I was at a loss on why Broussard (Olivier Gourmet), the police commissioner in charge of capturing Mesrine, is even introduced since the filmmakers decided to give him so little screen time. In the end, Broussard is shown running toward Mesrine as he is about to be shot to death. He comes across like a joke, similar to those cops in horror movies where they arrive a minute too late.

“L’ennemi public n°1,” directed by Jean-François Richet, could have been more effective and challenging if it had dug more deeply into Mesrine as a person. It is usually more difficult to make an audience to identify with a “bad person” than to get wrapped up in the sensationalized “bad things” he did. The film often rests on the latter just when things are about to get interesting.

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