Moments into the film Mesrine: Killer Instinct, we meet Jacques Mesrine played by Vincent Cassel. He’s a Corporal in the French Army fighting in Algeria. He is part of a team interrogating an Algerian POW.
Mesrine was ordered by his platoon sergeant to kill the wife of the POW being interrogated. The POW had been beaten and tortured to get him to reveal the locations of his associates. When he still refused to give up anything, the French tried to get him to cave by threatening to kill his wife right in front of him.
However, Mesrine shot and killed the prisoner at point blank range instead. This was his first kill, and it established a few things – he was capable of killing, and he was resistant to figures of authority. This scene also established that Director Jean-Francoise Richet was not going to soften the violence.
After the war, Mesrine return to France, and was urged by his parents to accept a dull factory job that they had arranged for him. instead of rejoining the French society as a productive citizen, he took up a life of crime. Working with a friend, they robbed at gun-point, or broke into houses, as well as whored and partied to their heart’s content. Simply, they were a two man crime wave. Then they came to the attention of the local crime boss, Guido, played by grossly overweight Gerard Depardieu who looks like he has put on a 100 pounds since Jean de Florret (1986), and soon after, they joined his crew.
Soon their crimes escalate. Mesrine seems capable of brutality of every stripe. Eventually a botched bank heist lands him in jail. When he gets out, he goes straight for a while, but when economic conditions change, he is laid off. Lest you think this article is biography of a bad guy, I’ll clear the air – this is a film review but the screenplay was an adaption of Mesrine’s autobiography.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct is actually Part One of a two part film. Part Two isn’t available in the US yet. As directed by Richet, this bio-film can be compared to Michael Mann’s Public Enemy Number One that starred Johnny Depp. Eventually Mesrine would come to be called France’s Public Enemy No. 1. In the film, a Canadian provincial newspaper headline knick-named Mesrine and his female associate as the French Bonnie & Clyde.
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1968) ended when the bank robbing duo was ambushed and shot to death. Mesrine begins with a similar ambush and Mesrine’s story is then told through flashbacks.
Though quite episodic which sort of leaves wide gaps in character development, Mesrine: Killer Instinct is almost a non-stop thrill ride. As the intensity of the crimes builds and builds, as viewers, we are stunned by it, yet attracted to Cassel’s Mesrine at the same time. As are the women that cross Mesrine’s path. Between bank jobs and his times in jail, he never lacks for women.
Director Richet has both created a criminals on the run thriller as well as a soft condemnation of the media who dutifully reports on the activities of Mesrine. He’s fearless, a master of disguises, and jails couldn’t seem to hold him. He becomes a folk hero, no – a legend, even as he runs amok in France, Spain, Canada, and even the United States. But that is to the unseen French public. Personally, I hadn’t heard of this guy until the film. So ‘legend’ might be a bit more localized than intended.
You will be amazed when you see the chase through Arizona’s Monument Valley with Mesrine and his moll being pursued by a half dozen cop cars. Just as you will be shocked when Mesrine and Guido take down a French-Arab pimp and give him the same fate as Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro in the 1995 Scorsese film, Casino.
The Mesrine character is anything but likable. Cassel plays him with flair and cool, as well as providing us with a certain dread. This guy is so monstrous, yet you can’t take your eyes off him. You might even begin to think – can a film be too violent? Even as he is brutalized in the Quebec, Canada prison, your sympathetic feelings for him are decidedly not particularly deep.
I think this is a worthy film to see and think about, but I’m not positive that this will be a lasting or memorable endeavor, especially since this is only the 1st half. Having said that, I will tell you that, I fully intend to see Part Two. If you liked Cassel’s intensity (Attack it! Attack it!) in Black Swan, you’ll love him as Mesrine. Available from Netflix.