This is actually two films, Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number 1, but I’m treating them together because, despite being quite different in tone, they were made together and should be watched together. The first film takes in the late 60s and uses split-screen both as a narrative tool and as a stylistic reminder of the times. The second film, covering most of the 70s, is much more gritty – rather appropriately again. There is a superb cast in both, and with some overlap, with actors of the calibre of Depardieu in supporting roles, but Cassel as the charismatic and probably deranged criminal dominates both films.
Killer Instinct tells of the anti-hero’s grounding in violence, in the French-Algerian war, and how Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) (pronounced “Mey-reen”) translated his capacity for this into a criminal career, becoming a notorious bank robber and repeated escapee from top-security prisons while cultivating an almost totally undeserved mythic status as a kind of Robin Hood. The film clearly shows his ability, determination and charisma but, while it is often great fun, it doesn’t sugar-coat that Mesrine was a criminal, a robber who exploited his lovers and friends and used violence whenever it suited him, and was perfectly willing to kill if it suited him also. That his victims tended to be police and military and his fellow-criminals, rather than bystanders and other members of the public at large, was almost incidental to each crime, even if it was crucial to the growth of his reputation. By targetting banks and casinos, Mesrine was able to pretend that he was on the side of “the little guy” even as he came to believe he was superhuman.
In contrast, Public Enemy Number 1 is much darker in tone. Mesrine starts to believe his own myth and, as a consequence, he becomes more dangerous, to himself, to his friends and colleagues and to the public at large. He seems to have moments of clarity, when he knows how his life will end – as do we, since we saw this at the very beginning of the first film – but at others, he seems to be in a fantasy world where he is indestructible and will always win. As he keeps committing crimes and keeps evading capture, the probability of his dying violently approaches 1 – and, deep down, he knows this.
Over the two films, we see a man who might be a psychopath become a feted pop-culture “hero”, his stock rising even as his sanity becomes more doubtful, and we see how he burns out the affections of those around him; there is only so long sane people can hang around someone with little regard for staying alive. And yet the last fifteen minutes, as we approach the ending we already know must come, is still unbearably tense.