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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Gangster chic, French style

September 10, 2008 |  5:59 pm


Etvincent_cassell_3 They say violence is American as apple pie, but when it comes the the movies, murder and mayhem is the ultimate global export. Today I saw the premiere of Jean-Francois Richet's "Public Enemy Number One (Part 1)," an epic gangster saga that clearly has ambitions of reaching the same lofty perch as "Bonnie and Clyde" or "GoodFellas." It stars Vincent Cassel as Jacques Mesrine, the legendary French gangster turned rogue hero, who was sort of a Gallic version of Clyde Barrow or the Kray twins. Like the Krays, Mesrine became a pop culture hero in the '60s and '70s, robbing banks, staging impossible prison escapes and cultivating a flair for publicity. When on trial in a Paris courtroom, a judge asked him, "What did you do with the money you took in the holdup?" Mesrine's answer: "I put it in the bank, your honor. That's still the safest place to keep it."

Filmed in six different countries over the course of six months last year, "Public Enemy Number One" has a second installment that's due for release next year. I'd heard the movie was unbelievably blood-drenched, but I couldn't possibly resist seeing Cassel, who's become a master of playing menacing thugs in such films as Gaspard Noe's "Irreversible," Mikael Hafstrom's "Derailed" and David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises." The film also co-stars Gerard Depardieu as Mesrine's original crime boss and Cecile de France as Jeanne Schneider, his gun-toting sweetheart.

Cassel gives an incredibly charismatic performance, full of sex appeal and swagger, while Richet handles the action with aplomb, delivering some wonderfully tension-filled bank robbery and prison escape scenes. But the movie is undone by its willingness to wallow in every violent chapter of Mesrine's career. Having served as a no-holds-barred army interrogator in the Algerian war of independence, he seems to believe that any act of brutality is justified by the circumstances. But eventually the brutality gets the better of the film.

It definitely got the better of the audience today. Though the film drew a nice-sized crowd, not everyone stayed to the finish. Six people walked out after Cassel pummeled an Arab gangster, gutted him with a knife and buried him alive. Four people headed up the aisle after Cassel brawled with an abusive bar patron, smashing him in the face with a broken glass of whiskey. The woman sitting next to me fled after Cassel got into a furious fight with his wife in the film, punching her in the face, knocking her down a flight of stairs and sticking his gun in her mouth. When Cassel is tossed in prison in Montreal after another robbery gone wrong, we see our hero being brutalized by special police, who torture him, strip him naked and pummel him with a fire hose. He miraculously escapes, living to fight another day, but somehow the sense of triumph feels hollow.

I stuck around to the bitter end, but I can't say that I'm holding my breath to see what happens in Part  2. Mesrine may have once captured the imagination of France, but in this film, he's just another bad guy destined to meet a bad end. As I left the screening, a Frenchman nearby offered his own pithy assessment: "Mal, mal, mal."

Photo of Vincent Cassel by Kristy Wigglesworth / Associated Press