Mesrine: Killer Instinct – Review



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France’s answer to Public Enemies

One of the great things about films is that the characters represented are no different than fashion styles. A certain character can either be in or out. While vampires and wolves may be in at the moment, they’ll soon be replaced by something else. It’s like when Pirates of the Caribbean made pirates cool again. However with gangsters, they never go out of style.

Gangsters and the crime film in general have been one of the constants in cinema, spanning generations and being glamorized a hundred times over. Films like Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931) took the lawlessness and urban violence as seen in the streets and put it on-screen. The public would flock to theaters and were enmeshed in the gangster lifestyle, living vicariously and soaking in the exploits of men who broke laws and didn’t feel remorse.

The gangster film paved the way for a number of different subgenres of the crime genre, including films depicting organized crime and the emergence of film noir. It would also be a genre that would shape and define filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann.

Last year’s Public Enemies from Michael Mann was a docudrama about the great American crime wave of the 1920s and 1930s with a rogues gallery consisting of Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and John Dillinger, a bank robber that was seen as a folk hero to the blue-collar worker. While that film caught Dillinger near the tail end of his criminal career, France’s Mesrine: Killer Instinct details the rise of France’s legendary gangster, Jacques Mesrine. During his lifetime he achieved that same rarefied mythical status like Dillinger, being viewed as a hero to many.

Knowing nothing of the gangster beforehand, the film’s ending did come as a disappointment. As the first part of a two-part saga (the second of which is called Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One), it feels incomplete. Considering it was originally released as a complete film, where it was nominated for ten Cesar Awards and won three, it’s a shame that Music Box Films felt the need to break the film up. Though, today’s audiences can’t sit through a four-hour feature no matter how engrossing it is – and most have no desire to watch a French film no matter the length. But when the epilogue at the end of the feature says “As for Jacques Mesrine…” “END OF PART ONE” the viewer has every right to be frustrated.

Despite the film not being complete, Mesrine is still a compelling work. Vincent Cassel’s Cesar-winning performance as the title character is definitely warranted. Most might recall him as the adversarial cat burglar in the dreadful Ocean’s Twelve or as Jean-François in The Brotherhood of the Wolf, or maybe as Kirill in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. As Mesrine he deftly fills the shoes of the notorious gangster to play the criminal at various states of his life. The actor even has his own Robert De Niro moment as he packed on forty pounds for the role. Though that massive weight gain is reserved for part two where he lives by his moniker, “The Man of a Hundred Faces”.

At the film’s onset is the moment right before Mesrine is executed in broad daylight in the streets of Paris. Then it quickly flashes back to the late 1950s with Mesrine as a member of the French resistance during the Algerian War. The film’s subtitle Killer Instinct illustrates that his time in the French army would shape his personality post-war. Returning to France after the war, Mesrine becomes involved with a life of crime. Murders, robberies and stints in prison follow.

A little less than two hours in length, Killer Instinct flies by and the pacing suffers because of it. Fifteen years of Mesrine’s nefarious acts are cobbled together. He conspires with friend Paul (Gilles Lellouche) and low-level crime boss (Gerard Depardieu), until he has to flee the country when things get too hot. Later he finds himself in Quebec in cahoots with criminal Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis) while having a Bonnie and Clyde romance with Jeanne Schneider (Cecile De France). Together the two lovebirds leave a trail of robberies and murders in their wake. But when a kidnapping goes wrong and leads to Mesrine’s apprehension in the state of Arizona, the criminal is sentenced to ten years in Canada’s Saint-Vincent-de-Paul maximum-security prison. After a daring escape, he’s back to his illegal ways.

It’s only when Mesrine is incarcerated that the film’s momentum slows down. But it is his time behind bars that offers the most in terms of production value. His brutal torture while in solitary confinement as well as the escape is technically well done. And, aside from the language, the film doesn’t feel foreign at all. As it turns out, the director, Jean-François Richet, also helmed the 2005 remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. The action scenes are reminiscent of those found in films by Micahel Mann – even some of the robberies and the near apprehension outside of the prison feel, well, Mann-ish.

For decades it appeared that America had a stranglehold over the crime film. The Godfather and Goodfellas may be two that stand head and shoulders above most, but foreign cinema has also made great contributions to the genre, carving its own niche with films by such legendary filmmakers as Jean-Pierre Melville, Fritz Lang and Akira Kurosawa. Mesrine: Killer Instinct also belongs in discussion when talking about biographical crime thrillers. It may not be a complete film, but it still manages to be an entertaining one. So if after 113 minutes you feel jaded about how it ends, just remember that the story concludes with Public Enemy Number One.


Director: Jean-François Richet
Notable Cast: Vincent Cassel, Cecile De France, Roy Dupuis, Gerard Depardieu, Gilles Lellouche, Elena Anaya, Ludivine Sagnier
Writer(s): Abdel Raouf Dafri and Jean-François Richet, based on L’instinct de mort by Jacques Mesrine

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