There are so few bonafide movie stars these days. These are actors that can light up the screen in such a way that even in a highly stylized and kinetic motion picture about an infamous personality, all eyes are riveted on the curve of the mouth or the lift of a brow of the player: Insouciance is celebrated. Vincent Cassel is certainly one of those actors. Whether he is hamming it up in the all star Ocean’s movies (or the goofy Sheitan) or turning into a monster in Irreversible or La Haine. Few stars of Cassel‘s caliber can go from the charm and sex appeal of Warren Beatty to the pure motherfucker-ness Charles Bronson to full on nutter of Jack Nicholson. And director Jean-François Richet allows for all of the above in Public Enemy Number One (Part One). While we get little real insight into one of Frances most notorious criminals, Jacques Mesrine, what we do get is one of the most snappy crime thrillers in quite some time. The stylish presentation and driving narrative do not let up. The film asks you to root, cheer, and laugh for a truly despicable human being, and with its stars charm and menace at the helm, you might just find yourself doing so. Yes, in a the strangest of ways this is a good thing.
North American’s likely know Jean-François Richet from his remake of John Carpenter’s Assault in Precinct 13, but that somewhat forgettable film cannot adequately prepare for the mastery on display in the construction of Public Enemy Number One. Visually echoing the styles of Michael Mann and Brian DePalma, Richet makes the most of split screens, changing film stocks, Ken Burns effects, extreme close-ups and when necessary, precise, static long shots. The opening credits of the film set the tone in the form of multiple versions of Vincent Cassel and Ludivine Sagnier on screen, simultaneous yet different angles and slightly off in timing via a masterful use of split screen. This is the stuff perfect introduction on what the film is going to be, slick glossy and commercial, yet not at the expense of edgy filmmaking. There is something going on: a bomb, a bank heist, the feel is familiar, the cinematic grammar an obvious telltale. But things are cranked up a bit further than your run-of-the-mill thriller. It feels like the film is taking the first step crossing a busy and wide street, knowing that only centimeters away is fast moving death on wheels. That feeling never really goes away over the course of the film, making the 2 hour run time feel like mere minutes. The viewer is asked to watch some pretty grisly stuff, not the least of it being a bit of tense marital gun fellatio. The first part of the film which resembles a good old fashioned gangster yarn in the vein of Scarface of The Godfather, to the second half which fuses a terrorism biopic with Bonnie and Clyde. The two fuse together neatly while chronicling the first dozen years of the stranger personal and professional life of Jacques Mesrine from his time doing hoodlum stuff on the streets of Paris in the 1950s to the full blown crime spree in Quebec in the 1960s which culminates in a full frontal prison assault of all things. As a Canadian, it was curious to get the French take on the Canadian prison system, if the film does nothing else, it is a good adviser against committing felonies in Montreal. The opening credits of the film have a disclaimer that belongs in front of every biopic ever made. Something along the lines that this film isn’t truth, or history, but a artistic and commercial point of view. Truth is in the eye of the filmmakers. Not since The Untouchables has this type of filmmaking been realized so bloody well. Excising much of the stories intimate drama or Oscar-bait histrionics, and relying on the magnetism of Vincent Cassel’s charisma to grab the audience in between bullets, chases and macho posturing, Public Enemy Number One is a bloody shiv, broken off at the handle and shoved in hard by a smiling, crazy, and charming superstar in his prime. Bring on Part Two please.
This review was originally posted during our TIFF 2008 coverage. The title of the film was originally Public Enemy Number One (part 1) with an at the time, unreleased sequel. At Fantasia 2010 you have the chance to see both Mesrine : L’instinct de mort and Mesrine : L’ennemi public n°1.