By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 3, 2010
It's no spoiler to reveal that "Mesrine" doesn't end well. "Public Enemy No. 1," the second half of the two-part French drama -- which opened Aug. 27 with an installment called "Killer Instinct" -- begins with a shot of the protagonist's bullet-riddled body slumped over the wheel of his car. Based on real events, the "Mesrine" films tell the story of gangster Jacques Mesrine, who was gunned down by police in 1979 after a nearly two-decade career of brazen bank robberies, kidnappings, killings and prison breaks.
So if we know how it all turns out, what's the point of the exercise?
That's a good question. Taken together, both films run more than four hours and include more than a few crime-movie cliches, beyond the foreshadowing of the story's unhappy ending.
The answer, of course, is Vincent Cassel. The actor, who won a Cesar award, or French Oscar, for his portrayal of the mercurial and at times brutal criminal, is a thing of beauty.
Strange beauty, to be sure. Cassel's face -- characterized by the underbite of a French boxer dog, a prominent nose and penetrating, almost froglike eyes set above deep bags -- can approach ugly at times. Ah, but when he smiles as Mesrine, which he does with the same frequency and explosive intensity that his character shoots people, you can't take your eyes off him. Cassel's volatile screen presence alone -- sexy one minute, terrifying the next -- is worth the price of admission, not to mention a sore rump.
"You amuse people," Mesrine's attorney tells him at one point, "but you scare them, too." Later, when that same attorney is smuggling guns to her client to facilitate his escape from prison, it's unclear which of those reasons has motivated her career-jeopardizing move. At the same time, the plausibility of her actions is never in doubt. Cassel, as Mesrine, is that magnetic. You'll root for his antihero even as you're appalled by his depravity.
Unfortunately, even an actor that charismatic is unable to shed much light on Mesrine's dark soul. He remains something of a cipher, even after four-plus hours.
To be sure, there's a bit more talk in "Public Enemy" about fighting the "system" than there is in "Killer Instinct." The second film takes place between 1973 and 1979, an era marked by violent radicalism in Europe. But, as one of Mesrine's partners in crime points out, you're not fighting the system if you use your ill-gotten gains to run out and buy expensive jewelry and booze for the latest of your lovers, as Mesrine does. You're feeding it.
Mesrine is certainly not the first unknowable, or even contradictory, movie villain. There's something vicariously compelling about the charming if inscrutable bad guy. But two long films is a lot to ask people to sit through without offering some insight. Director Jean-Fran?ois Richet and screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri's movie generates much heat, but little light.
In other words, no one will question how Mesrine was able to seduce (and in some cases corrupt) people: attorneys, lovers, partners, family members, journalists. If Cassel can turn the charm on and off so easily, so, presumably, could Mesrine. The question we're left with in the end isn't how he did what he did, but why.
Contains strong violence, obscenity, nudity and sex scenes. In French with English subtitles.