Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1, the sequel to Mesrine: Killer Instinct, that picks up the narrative directly on the heels of its predecessor, is somewhat more successful of a film when taken alone. As I mentioned in my review of Killer Instinct, part of the problem of that film was it’s failure to provide any sort of vulnerability or internal aspect to the character. As such, the audience was left with no reason to care about him, or the film. But very quickly within the opening scenes of Public Enemy No. 1, Mesrine finds out his father is on his deathbed in the hospital and rushes home to see him, braving a hospital visit with one of his many disguises. There’s an emotional reunion between the two men, in which Mesrine tells his father that it’s not his fault he turned out the way he did. It’s not the kind of scene that compromises the character, or excuses him for what he’s done, or attempts to justify his choices. And that works just fine. It’s simply the inclusion of a scene where we see that Mesrine cares about someone, and we’re witness to his vulnerability, and it goes a long way towards giving the character at least enough redemption for us to care about him to continue watching his story unfold.
From there the film charts a continued criminal career that finds Mesrine increasingly reliant and proficient in various disguises. It’s never portrayed in a way that’s over the top like some kind of over-produced Hollywood film, but it’s an element that’s present enough to be interesting. And as Mesrine’s criminal career spirals along increasingly bizarre and esoteric paths, it functions as part of his character portrayal. Mathieu Amalric, who is excellent as the beady-eyed and unnerving criminal Francois Besse, describes Mesrine as a top who doesn’t know he’s spinning out of control. Mesrine takes up certain anti-prison political causes which are, at best, misinformed and suspect. And he’s charismatic and gregarious and develops a certain relationship with the media, prizing himself as a criminal of the people and knowing that his public image plays a large role in his success, as well as the way he’s both pursued and prosecuted for his crimes. There’s a brilliant, media-savvy strategist in Mesrine, but there’s also a real self-involved, unaware egoist. Watching Mesrine’s criminal ascent and mental dissolution is fascinating. This is also the film where Cassel really gets to sink his teeth into the character and his evolution of increasingly erratic behavior.
Also of interesting note is the evolution of Mesrine’s romantic relationships. During a prison stint, he’s visited by his now-adult daughter, who is nevertheless extremely youthful and innocent. Later, Mesrine takes up with Sylvie Jeanjacquot, and though they never marry, he treats her better and more tenderly than he ever treated his wife. There’s a genuine love there, perhaps in no small part due to the fact that she looks remarkably like his daughter. I’m not sure if this happened to simply be a caveat of the casting of these Mesrine films, but the similarity in age alone seems to open up a certain part of Mesrine’s psychology and provide the argument that he was serving a penance of his past relationships and trying to be both a father figure and a devoted lover to Jeanjacquot.
There’s also a fascinating relationship between Mesrine and Olivier Gourmet as police captain Broussard. One scene shows Broussard allowing Mesrine twenty minutes inside an apartment to “get his affairs in order” before arresting him to avoid a bloodbath. And the last twenty to thirty minutes of the film track Broussard’s stakeout that leads to Mesrine’s killing. Again, the fact that the two films have been split for distribution negatively affects the whole purpose of this climax having been telegraphed in the first film. Anyone who hasn’t seen Killer Instinct doesn’t receive any of the benefit of the suspense of knowing that Mesrine will be caught, and so the whole device is purposeless. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hobble the film the way that Killer Instinct is lessened as a standalone, and it’s still able to play successfully on its own. However, both films are improved significantly when viewed together.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct & Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1 rated as a single film together: 8/10