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Public Enemy Numéro Un

An ambitious French gangster epic leaves Michael Mann's Dillinger biopic in the shade.

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Mesrine: Killer Instinct Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 Directed by Jean-Francois Richet

When I'm rating a big-bucks movie, I'll often ask myself what I might say about it a year later, passing it in a video store with a friend, perhaps. By then the publicity blitz will have evaporated, and my colleagues at bigger publications won't be overpraising the movie, and people I meet won't be asking me, with ill-concealed anticipation, if it lives up to the advertising campaign. Public Enemies, the John Dillinger biopic starring Johnny Depp, got a hell of a buildup in June 2009—at least here in Chicago, where much of it was shot. You could barely walk down the street without seeing Depp on the side of a bus, modeling a fedora and black leather gloves and wielding a tommy gun. I wanted to like the movie—who doesn't love a period gangster film, and how often does one of those come along?

A year later, Public Enemies doesn't stack up. Watching it on DVD last weekend, I was disappointed all over again by how little it actually delivers in terms of human drama or cultural insight. Director Michael Mann proved he could supply both of these in a true story like The Insider (1999) or a biopic like Ali (2001), but the Dillinger movie was so choked with action, vintage clothes, and gleaming 1930s automobiles that it seldom paused to consider its protagonist as anything more than an icon. It seems especially inadequate now that I've seen the French gangster saga Mesrine, which chronicles the 20-year career of real-life killer, kidnapper, and bankrobber Jacques Mesrine. Released in 2008 as two features, running about four hours total (100 minutes more than Mann had at his disposal), it yields some unpleasant truths about Mesrine's misshapen character and wild times.

Mesrine's criminal career paralleled Dillinger's in many ways. Each man specialized in bank robbery, playing up the Robin Hood appeal of stealing from powerful financial institutions. Each escaped from police custody after being apprehended and staged a daring prison break to bust out his comrades. Each was proclaimed public enemy number one in his respective country and became a media star, fascinating the public. And each proved so dangerous to law enforcement officials that eventually he was more or less executed on the street—Dillinger with a pistol shot to the back of the head as he strolled from the Biograph theater in July 1934, Mesrine in a hail of rifle fire as he sat in Paris traffic in November 1979. Their stories differ mostly in their respective eras: Dillinger operated in the depths of the Depression, Mesrine at the height of postwar prosperity.

With credits that include Heat, Miami Vice, and The Last of the Mohicans, Mann is revered as a master of the action movie, and Public Enemies is jammed with exciting set pieces: the opening sequence, in which Dillinger tries to free his criminal mentor, Walter Dietrich, from the Indiana State Prison, tells you immediately that you're in the hands of a filmmaker who knows how construct a chain of events onscreen and, even more important, understands that action is character. All of which makes Mesrine even more impressive by comparison. Director Jean-Francois Richet, who first came to notice with the 1996 thriller Ma 6-T Va Crack-er, may not have the sort of stylistic signature Mann brings to his movies after 30 years in the business. But both Killer Instinct and Public Enemy #1 are filled with daring bank jobs and heart-stopping escape sequences; they hurtle along at a pace that rivals the Dillinger movie while still managing to pick up enough emotional and cultural detail to feel novelistic.

Richet may have had an extra 100 minutes, but he also had a much longer time span to dramatize: Public Enemies unfolds mostly in the year of Dillinger's death, while Mesrine covers some 20 years of murder and mayhem. Richet has told the Guardian that he wanted Mesrine's story to function as a "micro-history. Not the history of France through Napoleon Bonaparte but through a man you might have passed in the street." Though "history" may be a bit of a stretch—like Public Enemies, Mesrine takes some liberties with the facts—Richet convincingly uses the twists and turns of Mesrine's unsettled life to chart the choppy social currents of the 60s and 70s. One of the earliest scenes shows Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), as a young soldier in 1959, brutalizing Algerian terror suspects, and his hatred of Arabs persists through most of Killer Instinct. By the end of Public Enemy #1, though, the radical politics of the 70s have pushed him far to the left, and he fancifully equates his criminal exploits with the terrorism of Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang.

By far the least satisfying element of Mann's Public Enemies was its love story. No one produces a $100 million movie without something in the mix that's thought to draw women, and when Mann and his screenwriting collaborators adapted the nonfiction best seller by Bryan Burrough, they zeroed in on Dillinger's romance with Billie Frechette, a coat-check girl (played by Marion Cotillard) who wound up doing time for her association with him and was behind bars when Dillinger finally got his. Mann and company even concocted a scene in which the cop who killed Dillinger visits Billie in prison to relay the dying man's words of love for her (in fact Dillinger's lips were seen moving but no one heard what he said). More than any other facet of the story, this one true love is supposed to reveal Dillinger the man, though by the time he died, he'd already moved on to another woman.

If the romance between Dillinger and Frechette was meant to evoke the 1930s ideal of a match made in heaven (or thereabouts), Mesrine's love life more closely reflects the confusion and chaos of the sexual revolution. As a young man, Mesrine is guided by a chivalry that's hard to separate from his racism, sexism, and all-around savagery; the most violent and shocking episode of Killer Instinct involves his thoughtless romance with a white prostitute (Florence Thomassin) and brutal antagonism of her Algerian pimp. During a trip to Spain, Mesrine seduces the virginal Sofia (Elena Anaya), who bears him three children, but he's more interested in being a criminal than a family man. When Sofia foolishly threatens to turn him in to the police, he shoves a pistol into her mouth (in full view of their daughter) and tells her, "Between you and my friends, I will always choose my friends. Always."

In fact, Mesrine's criminal partnerships are often more intimate and intense than his romantic partnerships. As the films follow him from one woman to the next, they chronicle his male bonding with a series of accomplices. There's his old buddy Paul (Gilles Lellouche), who provides him with an entrée into the criminal world, and Guido (Gerard Depardieu), their aging mentor. Later on, in Canada, Mesrine befriends and ultimately escapes from prison with the sturdy and formidable Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis); their shared mantra, "Out or dead," seems more compelling than any marriage vow. A second and even more daring prison break, from a maximum-security unit in France, forges a similar bond between Mesrine and Francois Besse (Mathieu Amalric), though it grows increasingly strained as Besse recoils from Mesrine's cowboy approach to crime. According to the Bryan Burrough book, Dillinger bonded with some of his fellow criminals too, but in the screen adaptation those relationships get lost in the shuffle.

For Mesrine, love and crime merge sublimely when he hooks up with the cool and ruthless Jeanne Schneider (Cecile De France) in Killer Instinct. Richet first shows them flirting in a swank bar: Mesrine makes a lame joke about Tarzan and Jane and Schneider counters with a feminist offer to buy him a drink. "I think in a place like this it's the men who treat the women," he replies. "That needs to change," she says. From there Richet cuts to a nearby casino where Mesrine and Schneider burst in, armed with rifles, and proceed to take the place down. In one electrifying moment, he manages to pinpoint not only the lovers' mutual passion but their changing times, even as he delivers what we all crave most in a gangster movie: a blaze of glory.   

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