Vincent Cassel is bigger and badder in Public Enemy #1, which covers the seven years leading to bank robber Jacques Mesrine’s gory death in 1979. More idiosyncratic and intriguing than the first half of Jean-François Richet’s diptych, this one also has terrific action setpieces. (Perhaps that’s due to the presence of Brian De Palma editor Bill Pankow.)
The paunchy outlaw pulls stunts like kidnapping a judge and creating his own legend with a memoir. Cooling his heels after an escape from Paris’s La Santé maximum-security prison, Mesrine searches for greater meaning in his work, and with terrorism all the rage in Europe, he decides he’s a freedom fighter.
The filmmakers applaud Mesrine’s discontent with a life of booze, broads, and cooking lapin à la chasseur, but they paint the left-wing pretensions as hubris. Once Mesrine teams with radical Charlie Bauer (Gérard Lanvin), the film’s black comedy evaporates, and Cassel’s eyes harden into granite.