Gangster films never go out of style. They dramatize a life that, to outsiders,
appears to be fun, exhilarating and financially beneficial. Very few are capable of shining a light on
the best and worst of the lifestyle and showing the audience what it’s really
like to live the dream, while fearing for your well-being every passing minute.
Public Enemy No. 1: Part One is a French film that tells
the story of Jacques Mesrine, France’s most prolific gangster in the 60’s and
70’s who eventually became “public enemy
number one” as a result of his high-strung attitude and blatant disregard for
respect, even within the criminal underworld system.
One aspect of the gangster sub-genre that I find intriguing
is the way in which criminals live by a strict moral code, all the while
knowingly breaking others. While many
films gloss over this fact, Public Enemy No. 1 addresses the matter with
intelligence while not forgetting that it is meant as entertainment. After all, it’s what drives the characters to
do what they do. Mesrine is by no means
a lowly thug, as the film reveals the true nature of his character early on. After serving in the French Army during the Algerian
War of Independence, Mesrine heads back home to France with an insatiable
desire for respect.
This is where Public Enemy No. 1 differs from other
gangster films. Here, Mesrine simply
wants respect and he’ll do anything to achieve it. In other films of this ilk, the lead wants to
live the American Dream. Mesrine could
care less about that. Respect is top
priority, while money is merely icing on the cake. As a result of this, Public Enemy No. 1 is
different than any other gangster film that came before it.
The acting is what also elevates the film above all
others. Public Enemy No. 1 has two
great leads in the form of Vincent Cassel and Gerard Depardieu.
As Mesrine, Cassel displays why he is highly regarded as one
of the best actors Europe has to offer.
For the entire running time of the film, the audience follows Mesrine on
his exploits. We hate him for his
actions, even though his intentions serve a wholly human purpose (as negative
as they may be); for an audience to care for such an unlikeable character means
the actor has successfully pulled us into the mind of the man. Cassel presents Mesrine as a man desperate
for respect and the (sometimes grotesque) lengths he will take in order to
Much has been written about Mesrine; the type of person he apparently
was, his violent outbursts and incredibly quick thinking personality. It’s all here, except Cassel does something
that very few actors can pull off effectively.
He comfortably positions Mesrine as both a protagonist and antagonist. This is wonderful work from Cassel, which
further solidifies his reputation as one of the best actors of his generation.
On the other end of the spectrum is Gerard Depardieu, who
plays Guido, the French mobster who takes Mesrine under his wing and teaches
him the inner working of the gangster lifestyle. It was wonderful seeing Depardieu on screen
again, playing a character I never thought he could pull off so beautifully. Like Mesrine, Guido takes part in a number of
despicable acts, while his strict adherence to the criminal moral code presents
him as a highly flawed human being, rather than an outright monster.
Public Enemy No. 1 works because it presents its characters
as human beings who constantly make the wrong choices. The thing is, the characters (as unlikable as
they may be) feel that what they are doing is right, which creates an
interesting dynamic that rings true long after the credits role.
Public Enemy No. 1 is a fast, brutal and thought provoking
crime drama that relishes in its numerous, beautifully choreographed set pieces
(including Mesrine’s daring escape from a Montreal prison in broad daylight!) without going
overboard; the action and drama go hand in hand without skipping a beat. Is it perfect? Far from it.
Seeing as how Public Enemy No. 1 is part one of two films about
Mesrine, it fails to have a satisfying ending; however, one can’t blame the
filmmaker for trying to give the film a solid ending nonetheless.
Public Enemy No. 1: Part One opens in the 70’s with a
heavy-set Mesrine about ready to be blown to smithereens by the French police
on the street. From there, the film
tells the tale (in flashback) of Mesrine’s gradual rise to the highest ranks within
the French underworld. While that scene
is never revisited again in Part One, it plants the seeds for what is sure to
be an enthralling and explosive conclusion.
8 out of 10