I recently had the "opportunity" to view both L'instinct de mort and L'ennemi public n° 1, neither of which has seen a stateside release at this time. The timing of the subtitles was off, and they were translated from Czech based on the original French, but that did nothing to detract from my enjoyment of these fine films.
Where did Jean-François Richet come from? His had the potential to be another clichéd story of foreign talent drafted by Hollywood to helm a steaming pile of mainstream dreck (Mathieu Kassovitz comes to mind, as does Gavin Hood.) After the craptastic Assault on Precinct 13 remake, he tucked his tail between his legs and ran back to the bosom of Mother France. Normally, that would be the end of the story, but cut to three years later and Richet has risen from the ashes with the double barrel blast of Mesrine.
Jacques Mesrine (the S is silent, dammit!) was a notorious French criminal and a media sensation. He had multiple bank robberies to his name as well as numerous prison escapes. Despite the fact he killed almost forty people, the press romanticized him as a modern day Robin Hood.
Christian Bale and Johnny Depp may be Public Enemies this summer, but Vincent Cassel is Public Enemy #1! I've been a huge fan of the man ever since his turn as a psychopathic hillbilly in the underrated horror gem, Sheitan, and this is the role he was born to play. Cassel is a man so full of charisma, he makes bastards and rapists relatable (ok, maybe not so much the rapists.) Either way, he fully embodies this likable rogue, imbuing him with a lust for the limelight, ala Refn's Bronson. Not to be outdone, the film also features a great supporting role by a corpulent Gerard Depardieu as a patriarchal gangster boss.
Shot back-to-back, L'instinct de mort and L'ennemi public n° 1 are really one epic film. They chronicle Mesrine's rise from street thug to France's most dangerous criminal. There is a lot of ground to cover, and the first half breezes through events at a brisk pace, reminiscent of Goodfellas. It culminates with Mesrine's lover refusing his offer to break her out of prison, effectively breaking his heart. Losing the Bonnie to his Clyde, this is an appropriate emotional act break.
The second half begins years later, with Mesrine in police custody for a daring double bank robbery. L'ennemi public n° 1 is high on action, but does suffer a little from repetition in the first act. At this point we have seen one too many shootouts, and at over two hours, this is where the film drags. But this is a minor complaint, as the film soon picks up again, barreling full steam towards its climax.
Both films feature assured direction by Richet, who handles the abundance of material well. L'instinct de mort opens with a fantastic split-screen sequence, which adds nicely to the overall 70's vibe. For a film that begins with the end and ends with the beginning, Richet squeezes a huge amount of tension out of the inevitable climax. It is a testament to his skill as a filmmaker that we experience so much tension during a scene we have already watched. My only complaint in the direction department- a little too much shaky-cam during the action sequences.
Who would have thought Richet would come back so strong? Kassovitz has yet to make a film as good as La Haine, and as for Mr. Hood... well, that remains to be seen. The Mesrine films have done well at festivals, and it is easy to see why. Hopefully they will see an official release sometime soon. I think American audiences would really take to these films, despite the language barrier. I also hope Richet learns from past mistakes and stays the hell away from Hollywood. Until then, let us all take a moment to offer thanks to our respective deities for the Internet, without which I would never have heard of these wonderful films, let alone had a chance to see them.