Public Enemy No. 1 Part 2 -- Film Review

For Americans whose appetite was whetted at the Toronto International Film Festival by the first part of this saga about French gangster Jacques Mesrine, the second half at last arrives at the annual Col-Coa presentation of Gallic cinema in Hollywood. "Public Enemy No. 1 Part 2" is worth the wait. Audiences can catch the two parts at back-to-back screenings Friday.

These represent the gangster movie at its most primal level: Director Jean-Francois Richet shows a career in crime with pulse-pounding moments of pure cinema, then lets you decide what to make of this homicidal sociopath. No judgments rendered here.

The film, which won Cesar awards for its director and star, Vincent Cassel, will be released in the U.S. in mid-August by Senator as two films with the umbrella title "Mesrine: A Film in Two Parts." It should make a powerful one-two punch in specialty venues and attract plenty of genre fans.

The first part is a whirlwind of activity that sets up the character of a career criminal who startles French police and citizens not so much by the ingenuity of his crimes but by their sheer audacity. Establishing early fame in a prison breakout in Canada's Quebec province, Mesrine returns to his native France to settle into a life of bank robbing and other anti-social activities.

The first film is virtually nonstop action, but the second chapter, while in no way throttling back on the violence, expands on the character of the rebel who believes in honor among thieves and grows increasingly absorbed by his own "legend."

Although not a particularly bright or well-educated fellow, Mesrine picks up enough details from the media about 1970s revolutionaries and terrorists to believe that, by choosing to live outside the law, he too is against "the system." One revolutionary pal sets him straight: What he steals he plows back into the economy by buying expensive cars and jewels for his whore-girlfriends. So Mesrine, in fact, celebrates capitalism.

Gaining a reported 40 pounds to play this bandit with a serious paunch, Cassel is literally and figuratively larger than life as he struts through the films. Everything and everybody is seen in relationship to the "big man," a point of attack that works wonderfully for this litany of crimes and violence that might otherwise have grown monotonous.

Mesrine is a low-tech criminal. He doesn't really plan his robberies but rather acts impulsively. Most bank jobs find he and his cohorts having to shoot it out with police, then grab a car and inevitably crash into another car, leaving them with few avenues of escape. Impetuously robbing a bank across from the one just robbed slows up one such operation.

Some escapes seem a matter of luck. A foolish robbery of a Deauville casino leaves him and a confederate stranded geographically; they only escape when their car going through a road block is the only one whose trunk is not checked. Supposedly a "master of disguise," the wonder, at least in the film, is that anyone is ever fooled by his bad wigs and facial hair.

His companions this time are equally as fascinating, starting with a tight-lipped and much lower-profile Mathieu Amalric as his partner in yet another prison escape. He hangs around for several jobs before the realization sets in that Mesrine enjoys being Public Enemy No. 1 to the point of endangering anyone around him. Ludivine Sagnier is the sexy yet vulnerable female on whom the criminal can lavish toys and gifts, and Gerard Lanvin as a real left-wing terrorist puts Mesrine's crimes into perspective.

Olivier Gourmet plays the traditional role as a police inspector who pursues the criminal across several years. Alain Fromager is a journalist who has the misfortune of attracting Mesrine's interest by portraying the gangster in print in a less-than-flattering light.

Ending with a flourish, the second part concludes with his cold-blooded assassination on Paris streets by police -- there's no other way to put it. This is the exact same sequence that launches the first film, only this time you see everything from the prospective of the police, not that of Mesrine and his lover.

Screens: Friday, April 24, City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival (Senator)
Production: La Petite Reine, Remstar, Novo RPI, M6 Films
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric, Samuel Le Bihan, Gerard Lanvin, Olivier Gourmet, Georges Wilson
Director: Jean-Francois Richet
Screenwriters: Abdel Raouif Dafri, Jean-Francois Richet
Base on the memoir by: Jacques Mesrine
Producer: Thomas Langmann
Executive producer: Daniel Delume
Director of photography: Robert Gantz
Production designer: Emile Ghigo
Music: Marco Beltrami
Costume designer: Virginie Montel
Editor: Herve Schneid
Sales agent: Kinology
No rating, 132 minutes