The second half of helmer Jean-Francois Richet’s elaborate Jacques Mesrine biopic, “Public Enemy Number One — Part Two” shows the infamous French gangster fighting the power ’til the bloody and utterly foreseeable end. Along the way, it’s another episodic dose of heists, shootouts, kidnappings and over-the-top ego tripping, highlighted by Vincent Cassel’s charismatic perf and Richet’s stylized period realism — both of which fail to drive the legend convincingly home. Opening wide while “Part One” (already at 2 million admissions) still sits in theaters, pic should make a sizable steal on home turf but won’t break the bank beyond Gaul.
After more than four hours of violence and mayhem dispersed across “Public Enemy’s” two highly similar parts, one thing is clear: We learn little more about Jacques Mesrine (Cassel) than what’s already on his Wikipedia page, and have even less sympathy for his narcissistic thug character, even if he’s often funny, altogether charming and portrayed by the filmmakers as a victim of ruthless police brutality.
Like “Part One” the second episode kicks off with a flash-forward to Mesrine’s death in a Paris-set traffic ambush in 1979, although this time we only see the blood-soaked aftermath. Arriving on the scene is the stressed-out Commissaire Broussard (Olivier Gourmet), who will try to apprehend the bandit throughout the six years of flashbacks that follow the opening sequence.
Back in France after an extended Canadian hiatus, Mesrine reboots his robbery biz by teaming up with the gun-slinging Porte-Avion (Samuel Le Bihan). He commits a few easy jobs, gets arrested, escapes custody during trial, pulls more holdups, then gets arrested again. The succession of events is choppy and anti-climactic, with the action filmed in lots of harrying closeups and backed by a bombastic caper score (by Marco Beltrami and Marcus Trumpp) that gives the whole panorama a forced retro feel.
Once again in lockdown, Mesrine meets fellow inmate Francois (Mathieu Amalric, bug-eyed and devious), and the two plot yet another successful and all-too-easy escape. (If there’s any consistent target in the film, it’s the French criminal justice system, portrayed as ridden with corruption and entirely incapable of keeping its detainees behind bars.)
Free again and with his mounting notoriety — boosted by his prison-penned autobiography, “L’Instinct de mort” — reaching rock-star proportions, the rogue begins another whirlwind tour of banks, casinos and billionaires. He soon parts ways with Francois but teams up with g.f. Sylvia (Ludivine Sagnier, pouting and whining) and extreme-left activist/outlaw Charlie (Gerard Lanvin, coiffed and dressed like a forgotten member of Iron Butterfly).
Richet and co-writer Abdel Raouf Dafri are clearly enthralled by their subject, yet their narrative remains almost entirely anecdotal, presenting Mesrine’s life as a series of dissociated incidents and characters with no underlying arc. Their depiction of the final slaying as a martyrizing event (echoed in the movie’s “The Passion of the Christ”-style ad campaign) only reinforces this awe-filled approach, which never allows them to get beneath their character’s thick skin.
Action sequences lack the punch of helmer’s “Assault on Precinct 13” remake, and although he teams up once again here with d.p. Robert Gantz, the two make the numerous bank robberies and prison breaks look like so many walks in the park. Production designer Emile Ghigo and costume designer Virginie Montel provide a potent blue-and-sepia-tinted ’70s backdrop, though it’s sometimes marred by all the embarrassing haircuts.
Beyond Cassel, other thesps are given scant dialogue and screen time.