When last we saw redoubtable French gangster Jacques Mesrine, he was just starting to bask in the pleasures of being a celebrity criminal. Now, in “Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1,” the second film of this thug life diptych, we get to see him truly coming into his own.
As played by French star Vincent Cassel, this Gallic bad boy weighs noticeably more than he did in the previous film, “Mesrine: Killer Instinct,” and that’s not the only thing that’s grown larger.
For as the French public starts to take increasing notice of his exploits, Mesrine’s ego grows exponentially and his monstrous self-confidence so expands that he loses his temper on discovering that Augusto Pinochet’s epochal military coup in Chile has pushed him off newspaper front pages.
Though it’s preferable to have seen “Killer Instinct” before experiencing “Public Enemy No. 1,” it’s not essential. Each of these Jean-François Richet-directed films stands on its own; each is a self-contained look at a specific period in its protagonist’s life.
What is most noticeable about Mesrine in the second stage of his career, and what helped Cassel win a César, the French Oscar, for his performance, is the way the gangster makes theater out of everything he does.
Mesrine had an acute sense of himself as a public personality. He often gave exclusive interviews while he was on the run, saying things like “when you live in hell, escape is a right” and telling his hospitalized father that the only reason for a Sunday visit is that “the banks are closed.” He also began to fancy himself a political revolutionary, insisting, “we live in a world of exploiters but I exploit no one.”
Although the excellent Cécile de France, who played Mesrine’s soulmate girlfriend in “Killer Instinct,” doesn’t make it into Part 2, the charismatic criminal does not lack for female companionship, with Ludivine Sagnier picking up the torch as yet another woman who has no desire to resist his advances.
Also gone is Gérard Depardieu’s crime lord, but Cassel’s male costars are equally strong this time: Mathieu Amalric plays a fellow criminal and master escape artist, and Olivier Gourmet is Commissaire Broussard, a French police official who is Mesrine’s implacable nemesis.
Like that first film, “Public Enemy No. 1" moves along at a brisk clip, filled with violent incidents and no end of bullet-shattered rear windows. Jacques Mesrine’s end may be inevitable, but he certainly doesn’t bore us along the way.