Movie Review: “Mesrine: Killer Instinct”

A crime epic in two parts, the story of Jacques Mesrine makes for a glittering tour de force turn by Vincent Cassel in the title role. His mesmerizing presence in the center of Jean-François Richet’s two films lifts them above the somewhat conventional life-and-death-in-crime genre pictures these are.

These are films that emphasize the charismatic “public enemy No. 1″ and his many bank robberies that end in shootouts and frenetic chases. There’s a taste of the backdrop against which Mesrine was formed — a declining, weakened and corrupt France, a Europe erupting in youth revolt and homegrown terrorism (Red Army Brigades, Baeder Meinhoff Group). But there’s little of the logistics — the “how” his many prison escapes were arranged, the “where” all the money from his scores of bank robberies, from France to Canada, went.

“Killer Instinct”, aka “Part 1,” shows us the young Mesrine, learning ruthlessness from the French Army in the last days of its occupation of Algeria. Mesrine, who told his own tale in a somewhat exaggerated autobiography, doesn’t dwell on the torture and murder “shaping” him, any more than the idea that he was over-compensating for a weak, Nazi collaborator dad. But that’s suggested.

Instead, we’re treated to a charming, mercurial brute, a man with style, a Frenchman who can cook, who can woo and bed a succession of beautiful women, some of whom he slaps around when they don’t show the proper “respect.” The Spaniard Sofia (Elena Anaya)
is the one he marries and has children with. She is an innocent who hopes he will reform after his first stay in prison. No such luck. The minx Jeanne (Cecile de France) is more his speed — a partner in crime, “Bonnie” to his “Clyde” in the newspapers.

Gerard Depardieu is Guido, his mentor, the man who teaches him it’s better to pack a gun than to pretend to pack one.

We’re treated to what bank robbing was like in the age before C.S.I. or forensics of any sophistication. Mesrine is all bravado, not wearing a mask, sometimes knocking off two banks across the street from each other. Sidekicks come and go, bank jobs go awry and sometimes he gets shot. Other times, he’s caught.

The comic side of the film is the way Cassel as Mesrine clowns in court, in the sometimes inept way his under-planned robberies go wrong and how the French police, at various levels, are always so accommodating — blundering into letting him escape, from jail, prison or court — four different times.

Cassel plays this “man of 100 faces” with a dexterity that will surprise people who only know him from “Ocean’s 12 or 13″ or “Black Swan.” He changes his voice as Mesrine pretends to be a cop stalking into police stations to check out the layout, or to throw off burglary victims who show up in the middle of his robberies. He makes Mesrine a fully-formed wholly believable figure, a clever guy, quick on his feet, but limited — an adrenalin junky who refuses to be a “slave to an alarm clock,” but who doesn’t put as much care into the planning as the the fictional Ben Affleck character in “The Town.”

The film’s violence is sudden, but not unexpected. The chases realistic (crummy 1960s and 70s French and American cars and trucks  are snatched and wrecked, shootouts entail a hail of bullets, very few finding their mark) and thus, not reinventions of the genre.

But Cassel’s performance as a man who thought of himself as a folk hero (In Canada, he feigned interest in “Free Quebec”), who always said “No prison could ever hold me” and “No one kills me until I say,” is the pounding, preening heart of Mesrine: Killer Instinct,” and the best reason to see this, one of the best French (In French with English subtitles) crime thrillers of the new millennium.

Cast: Vincent Cassel, Gerard Depardieu, Cecile de France

Director: Jean-François Richet

Running time:  1 hour 53 minutes

Rating: R for strong brutal violence, some sexual content and language

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