MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT (2008, directed by Jean-François Richet, 113 minutes, France)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
The first of a two-part robbing, shooting and killing jamboree, Mesrine: Killer Instinct is a dazzling vehicle for French superstar Vincent Cassel, Cassel burst into the scene in 1995 as the violent ghetto youth Vinz in the controversial La Haine and has shown himself to be surprisingly flexible in French productions and Hollywood films, appearing in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen and even providing a voice in Shrek. Like Bogart he has a face that can seem simultaneously handsome and homely and standing over six feet tall Cassel can bring a palpable sense of brooding menace.
All making him a natural to play Mesrine, a sort of French Dillinger who captured the public imagination with a series of bank robberies, kidnappings and four (count ’em!) prison breaks in the 1960’s and 70’s. The script co-written by director Jean-François Richet (with Abdel Raoulf Dafri who wrote the acclaimed A Prophet) gives us little in psychological motivation (he does yell at his dad for being a Vichy collaborator in WW2) and instead paints Mesrine as a guy who has stripped himself clean of moral concerns. His sole reason for being on earth seems to be to cause mayhem and collect the rewards, and film’s strategy is much the same. If you’re looking for some “crime doesn’t pay” moralizing you come to the wrong film; this chapter of Mesrine seeks to seduce you with the vicarious thrill of channeling your inner criminal.
Director Richet doesn’t bog things down with a lots of backstory or convoluted plotting, Mesrine instead plows its snarling anti-hero through a series of well-staged robberies, killings and jailbreaks. Early on Mesrine works for an older thug named Guido. Played by a surprisingly grizzled Gerald Depardieu, the now sixty-something actor makes a perfect curdled father figure for the loose cannon Mesrine. You might find their relationship almost touching but then again relationships isn’t what Mesrine does best.
There are fleeting alliances, including a prostitute who becomes his partner played by Cécile de France. They escape to Canada and join up with a member of the Quebec separatist movement, busting out and later back in to prison in a bravura sequence near the end this first installment. There’s little here we haven’t seen before, Mesrine seems particularly similar to the crime films of Michael Mann (especially Heat and Public Enemies although I’d argue it is more successful than either) yet Cassel’s vicious performance elevates the action the way only a true movie star can.
Mesrine is an unusually episodic feature and unlike many critics, I haven’t seen the second half (due to arrive next week, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1) , where Mesrine is dragged back to France by authorities. I’m not sure that I like these long intermissions between chapters but Cassel’s visceral, physical performance has left me revved up for whatever nasty business is next.