Able to brush off plaudits like so much dandruff, French gangster opus Mesrine has already folk pointing at it, saying things like: "best crime flick since Scorsese, that is". The crime scene genre is hardly a field that’s starved of cinematic action, so that’s some claim. So, is Mesrine any cop?
Well, it’s sprawling, striking, intoxicating and one of the suavest films you’re likely to see, if that’s any help. Mesrine is a dexterous, expertly executed work that feels fresh and timeless, both at the same time. Broken into two parts here, covering the best part of 4 hours, it unravels the tale and exertions of Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), the flamboyant criminal bete noire.
After serving in the Algerian war, he returns to France to discover that a life of increasingly unpetty crime is preferable to a job with a lacemaker. With a flair for breaking the law that’s matched by an uncompromising attitude, he’s taken in by crime boss Guido (Gerard Depardieu) before branching out as a one-man crimewave, with a penchant for bank-robbing and kidnapping.
Breaking out of prison and police custody is also a speciality, and it’s this quality, combined with a theatrical love of publicity, that gets the authorities’ backs up. Never without a dame on his arm or a brazen scheme afoot, Mesrine’s attention-seeking ways sow the seed of his inevitable finale.
Like Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco and Bronson, Mesrine is loosely based on a true story, but despite the initial disclaimer about its fictitious tone, this one has the most convincing tone by far. Director Jean-Francois Richet gives us a story that isn’t hermetically sealed – we drift in and out of Jacques’ life, as the editing implies that plenty more happens off-screen. It follows a broad narrative arc, but has no obligation to stick to that prettying convention. Despite his obvious bad-boy bent, we also see Mesrine as a family man who tries to go straight, but even when he drifts back, there’s no need to dramatise the shift – it’s just who he is and where he’s most comfortable.
The lack of formula may grate with some, but it implies a trust of the viewer, that we don’t need a spoon-feeding of plot points. Luckily, the presence of Vincent Cassel in the lead role smooths over any such creases - charming, monstrous, funny, genial, terrifying and arrogant, often at the same time, he’s utterly compelling and effortlessly larger than life. Mesrine grows from a dapper hoodlum to a deluded cartoon, convinced he’s a noble revolutionary, yet Cassel keeps it even. Like Tom Hardy’s Bronson, the need to be notorious makes them compelling and likeable, while ensuring that the dark side of their character is never too far from view - it’s a neat trick to pull off.
It’s also a treat to watch. When Cassel isn’t hogging your retinas, the cinematography pleasantly strokes your brow, with the lavish colour palette period setting helping to create a seductive world you really want to plunge into. There are faults - part one feels like it hogs the awesomeness, while after a while, the procession of girlfriends and sidekicks begins to blur towards the end, but by then you’ve been treated to such a bountiful wealth of excellence that you’ll scarcely quibble.
Epic, consummate and entrancing, Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1 is a must-see for anyone who has a love of either gangster movies or world cinema.
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Gerard Depardieu
Directed by: Jean-Francois Richet
Extras: making-of featurettes.