A defensive preface begins Mesrine: Public Enemy # 1, even more protective than the one that kicks off Mesrine: Killer Instinct, the preceding half of director/co-writer Jean-Francois Richet’s two-part biopic saga. Public Enemy # 1 starts with what reads like an embattled disclaimer: “All films are part fiction,” it announces. “No film can faithfully reproduce the complexity of one man’s life; each to his own point of view.” According to this lofty mandate, Public Enemy # 1 shouldn’t be judged as a historically meretricious account.
On the contrary, Richet (director of the surprisingly engaging Assault on Precinct 13 remake), overwhelmed by the idea that he must forge a narrative out of career criminal Jacques Mesrine’s exploits, has allowed himself this catch-all escape clause. That preface allows Richet to make Public Enemy # 1 an unabashed action thriller, complete with canned romantic melodrama between Mesrine (pronounced May-reen) and the various loved ones he leaves in the dust. Richet’s preemptive foreword is a brat’s declaration of war: Movies aren’t equipped to handle real life so screw verisimilitude—just sit back and enjoy watching Vincent Cassel’s Mesrine shoot and rob people as if that were an anarchically heroic act.
To be fair, the first half of Public Enemy # 1 is spent building up Mesrine’s ego so that during the second half he can become momentarily disillusioned but ultimately transformed into a Christ-like martyr. Richet and co-writer Abdel Raouf Dafri still cling to the pretense of ambiguity that made Killer Instinct an intriguing failed experiment, but here it’s even more obviously an excuse to treat Mesrine, a murderer that fancied himself a gentleman robber, like a charismatic, possessed bandit that only killed policemen (“Dangerous, dangerous—that depends,” he tells a female reporter. “With armed cops, yes. I have no limits then”).
Richet and Dafri accordingly present anyone that gets in Mesrine’s way as a chest-thumping, self-important enemy for the few minutes that these supporting characters get in Mesrine’s way. There’s the prosecutor that vainly attempts to deflate Mesrine’s charisma to a rapt courtroom, Commissioner Broussard (Olivier Gourmet), the highly publicized officer that eventually kills Mesrine, even the nameless girl who, when Mesrine is cornered by the law, screams so shrilly that one sympathizes with Mesrine when he tells her to shut up and let him burn incriminating evidence in peace.
There are two key concessions Richet and Dafri make in their otherwise fawning portrayal of Mesrine. First, he wasn’t a lady’s man all the time: In one scene, he’s trying to convince a colleague to bed one of two oblivious women instead of slinking off and masturbating frustratedly later. Mesrine argues, “You like salad and I like a pink taco.” If this weren’t Cassel in manic psychopath mode, that line would just sound stupid. Cassel is thankfully electrifying enough to sell us on that risible line. Nevertheless, this is after Mesrine greets a cabal of heavily armed cops with a smile and champagne glasses. He’s not a murderous gangster: He’s Don Juan and he will not be denied his pink taco.
The aforementioned champagne sequence doesn’t end with a big shoot-out because, according to Mesrine, “There was a lady (involved),” referring to his disposable date sniveling in the scene’s periphery. “Next time, no champagne, no ladies: just you and me, Broussard.” (Spoilers!) That macho, Michael Mannsian promise isn’t fulfilled by film’s end: Broussard culls together enough cops to form their own soccer team for the purpose of assassinating Mesrine. According to the film’s warped logic, Broussard is not an honorable man: After Mesrine is pumped full of lead, a lackey runs up to Mesrine’s still corpse and shoots him one more time in the head just to be sure. This sequence ends with an extended shot of blood dripping down Mesrine’s afro wig, a failed attempt at subterfuge and an impromptu crown of thorns for Cassel’s sexy martyr.
The other main concession Richet and Dafri tentatively make is that Mesrine almost never thinks about whether his crimes were really intended to bring down a corrupt French government. “I exploit no one,” Mesrine says to a magazine columnist during an interview while a mandolin plays mournfully on the soundtrack. Thankfully, one of Mesrine’s colleagues is astute enough to point out that by buying fancy BMWs and Cristal champagne, Mesrine is supporting the system he publicly proclaims he’s determined to destroy.
Mesrine is almost instantly relieved of the burden of this brief moment of clarity when that same crook brings an unflattering news article to Mesrine’s attention. The piece claims Mesrine short-changed his past associates and hung them out to dry. Mesrine, being a man that’s convinced his shit doesn’t stink and is therefore incapable of telling lies, abducts the craven reporter and tortures him. According to Public Enemy # 1’s logic, this presumptuous journo deserved a good thrashing: Mesrine is never shown ripping off his partners, therefore it couldn’t have happened. In fact, before the reporter is savagely beaten, he flatters Mesrine by telling him that the cops are terrified of him, a line that is later confirmed when several cops hyper-ventilate before ganging up on Mesrine and gunning him down (“I nearly shit my pants,” one quakes). There’s nothing ambiguous about Richet and Dafri’s lopsided, quasi-dialectical approach: It’s just a way for them to give their antihero more rope to hang himself with.