The wild life of France’s most notorious modern-day criminal, Jacques Mesrine, is delivered with the rushed urgency of an overnight package in “Public Enemy Number One.” Only the first half of the two-part pic (known in French-speaking territories under the umbrella title of the source autobiography, “L’Instinct de mort”) preemed at Toronto, with director Jean-Francois Richet’s ambitious project hellbent on packing in every bit of Mesrine’s career in lieu of more selective and entertaining storytelling. Wicket prospects this fall in France and Quebec (on the strength of co-star Roy Dupuis’ name) are potent; elsewhere and Stateside, decent returns look iffy.
Biz will partly depend on which version is released: The two-part, nearly four-hour edition that’s being rolled out in France in October and November, or a more condensed form. Pic faces a commercial challenge similar to that of Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” (which is a bit shorter at full length) in terms of viable running time and condensation. The films couldn’t be more different in terms of the telling, however.
While “Che” concentrates on essentially two key sections of the revolutionary’s life, “Public Enemy Number One” is episodic to a fault, with few scenes playing more than a minute or two. The effect of Richet’s hyperventilating filmmaking is akin to that of an extended-play trailer.
After opening with the spectacle of Mesrine being gunned down on the Paris streets in November, 1979, the story proper begins during France’s war with Algeria two decades earlier, suggesting the war fueled Mesrine’s instincts for murder as he tortures and kills an Algerian prisoner of war. In a sudden cut forward in time that’s typical of Richet’s idea of grand, sweeping filmmaking, Mesrine is suddenly back in France, living with his parents (Michel Duchaussoy, Myriam Boyer) and trying to find work.
For no apparent reason other than it seems vaguely appealing, Mesrine joins his pal Paul (Gilles Lellouche) for some petty thefts, which leads to working for crime boss Guido (Gerard Depardieu). Because the film dashes from scene to scene without pausing for reflection, Guido’s enterprise seems to barely exist beyond the breadth of his desk and the presence of personality, to which Depardieu lends a mixed air of camaraderie and menace.
Still trying for some sense of respectability, Mesrine marries Sofia (Elena Anaya), but once again, this section reveals nothing past what’s already been established, which is that Mesrine is an uncommonly charismatic thug. After a violent fight with Sofia, Mesrine is nearly killed by Guido’s enemies, and, with new g.f. Jeanne (Cecile de France), flees to Canada and a fresh set of pell-mell mini-adventures.
Pic’s narrative compression grows ridiculous, especially during a section that sees, in short order, Mesrine meeting Quebec separatist supporter Jean-Paul Mercier (Dupuis); Mesrine and Jeanne hired and fired as servants in a mansion leading to their kidnapping of their wealthy boss; their flight to the U.S. and arrest in Monument Valley; and brutal imprisonment in a high-security Quebec facility.
Any one of these sections would provide a knockout setpiece for a biopic that chose to be burrow inside Mesrine’s complex character and his flagrant shunning of risk. But not only does Richet’s approach keep involvement at arm’s length, it prevents Cassel from settling into his role and creating something real. Besides Depardieu, only De France, who’s adopts a tough-gal manner that renders this usually glamorous actress nearly unrecognizable, makes any lasting impression among the vast supporting cadre.
The project’s $80 million budget, with the costly logistics of dozens of different locations in three countries, is clearly onscreen. Slick production package displays a detailed eye for period changes, particularly Virginie Montel’s apt costuming. Marco Beltrami’s score is loud and thoughtless.