Public Enemy Number One



Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO - A gangster movie done as a biopic, "Public Enemy Number One (Part One: The Origins)" shoves France's most notorious criminal on to the screen with propulsive action and swagger. No one asks you to like the guy; just strap on your seat belt for a wild ride into the audacious. The protagonist is Jacques Mesrine and the star is dashing Vincent Cassel. The film is based on a memoir Mesrine wrote in prison shortly before he escaped. He lived at least nine lives before gunned down by police in 1979 in the center of Paris.

Indeed so rich a life, that director Jean-Francois Richet designed the project for two films shot over nine months. The first film, "Public Enemy Number One (Part One: The Origins)" - the French title is that of Mesrine's autobiography, "L'Instinct de Mort" or "Death Instinct" - opens next month in France. However, U.S. distributor Senator Entertainment is thinking about jamming the two parts together and releasing them as a single film. Without having seen the second film, I can still say: bad idea.

The first film is a terrific gangster with broad-stroke characterizations, reckless action and nerve jangling music. For the second film, entitled "The Legend," Richet promises a psychological thriller. Taking a hatchet to the two films will only deprive American audiences of the full flavor of Richet's portrait of raw power.

Following French military service in Algeria in the late '50s, Mesrine ducks out on a petit bourgeois life his parents have established for him to hang out with gangsters and whores. He forges a friendship with mob boss Guido (Gerard Depardieu), then rises through the ranks.

In Spain, he meets and marries his wife (Elena Anaya). But he finds his soul mate in Pigalle prostitute Jeanne Schneider (Cecile de France) with whom he stages a series of brazen robberies before fleeing to Quebec.

There he falls in with separatist radicals, gets arrested, imprisoned and tortured before escaping. Two weeks later, he attacks the penitentiary to spring his mates.

Richet, who wrote the script with Abdel Raouf Dafri, is intent on showing the creation of a legend. His Mesrine can be a thug and sadist but his instinct is for quick, unexpected crimes. That nerve invites public attention. It's fodder for the tabloid.

Richet makes little attempt to understand or psychoanalyze Mesrine in the first film. The closest it comes is a diatribe against his father for his passive life. Mesrine is simply pure id. He can be a smooth operator but would rather be a rough one.

Depardieu efficiently conveys complete amorality in his few scenes. Gilles Lellouche and Roy Dupuis are solid as accomplices in France and Montreal. But the character you're going to miss in Part Two is De France's Jeanne. Sexuality inspires her career in crime. When she's robbing banks at gunpoint, she's making love to her man. Part One, at least, is a French "Bonnie and Clyde."

Distributor: Senator Entertainment US
Production companies: Le Petite Reine/Remstar/Novo RPI/M6 Films
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Cecile de France, Gerard Depardieu, Gerard Lanvin, Roy Depuis, Gilles Lellouche, Elena Ayana, Michel Duchaussoy.
Director: Jean-Francois Richet

Screenwriters: Abdel Raouf Dafri, Jean-Francois Richet.
Based on the book by: Jacques Mesrine.
Producer: Thomas Langmann.
Executive producer: Daniel Delume.
Director of photography: Robert Gantz.
Production designer: Emile Ghigo.
Costume designer: Virginie Montel.
Editor: Herve Schneid.
Sales: Kinology.
No rating, 110 minutes.