Mesrine: Killer Instinct began by showing how police gunned down French criminal/celebrity Jacques Mesrine in his car in 1979; it then jumped back in time to show how his life of crime began. Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1, the second half of Jean-François Richet’s biopic, begins where Killer Instinct’s opening left off, as police tout their accomplishment to the press and a crowd of onlookers, and a circus-like atmosphere surrounds Mesrine’s bloodied corpse. It’s a grim scene that recalls post-lynching celebrations in the American South, but it also gives Public Enemy an edge that Killer Instinct lacked. Most rise-and-fall crime stories end messily—Mesrine is frequently compared to John Dillinger or Clyde Barrow, both of whom similarly captured the public imagination, and were similarly shot down in public—but Public Enemy openly raises the question of why officers of the law hated Mesrine so much that they were willing to turn his death into a block party.
The rest of Public Enemy goes back to fill in those blanks. The Mesrine of Killer Instinct (adapted from Mesrine’s autobiography) was a hungry, angry young brute. The version seen in Public Enemy is older and more relaxed, a glib, even smug self-styled “honest bandit” who engages in daring prison escapes, gives interviews to Paris Match, and fiercely protects his self-image as a revolutionary and a people’s hero. Prison guards and policemen seem cowed by his swagger and force of personality, and let him dictate ridiculous terms even when they’re arresting him. While the Mesrine movies never gets into their heads, it’s clear that he makes them seem like bumbling fools.
Public Enemy doesn’t get into Mesrine’s head either, but it comes much closer than Killer Instinct, largely by covering a shorter time span in more detail, and by watching Mesrine react to people who knowingly reflect his image back at him: partner François Besse (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly star Mathieu Amalric), who decries Mesrine’s supposed revolutionary philosophy as counterproductive for a bank robber; a kidnap victim who implies it’s all self-serving bullshit; a journalist who does the same in public and pays a heavy price; a girlfriend (Ludivine Sagnier) who sees and tries to encourage Mesrine’s softer side; and actual revolutionary Charly Bauer (Gérard Lanvin), whose stronger convictions discomfit Mesrine and push him to more extreme action. Public Enemy contains plenty of action, but the scenes with these five are where Vincent Cassel as Mesrine gets his chance to excel, and to bring across Mesrine’s full layered complexity. Like Killer Instinct, Public Enemy is sometimes disconnected and disorganized, and it piles on the easy irony at the end. But at its best, it’s a mesmerizing portrait of a man who mesmerized a lot of people, right up to that bloody display of police power on the Paris streets.