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Review: Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Criminal intense: Vincent Cassel triumphs
By BETSY SHERMAN  |  August 26, 2010
3.0 3.0 Stars

 

France's exemplar of the self-mythologizing, media-baiting criminal is Jacques Mesrine. Although dead for decades, Mesrine ("may-REEN") is still a presence in pop culture: his mug is on T-shirts, and his name crops up in rock lyrics and hip-hop rhymes. When in 1979 he was shot in broad daylight on a Paris street — an event dramatized at the beginning of Mesrine: Killer Instinct — it was by an armed squadron. The image of his bloody corpse slumped in the driver's seat was plastered on front pages (and can still be quickly accessed on the Internet). At the time, many criticized what seemed like a state-sanctioned execution, but Mesrine himself might have appreciated its Grand Guignol impact.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct | Directed by Jean-François Richet | Written by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Jean-François Richet based on the book by Jacques Mesrine | with Vincent Cassel, Gérard Depardieu, Florence Thomassin, Elena Anaya, and Cécile de France | Senator Distribution | French | 113 minutes
Violent and brash, as befits its subject, Mesrine: Killer Instinct is the first part of Jean-François Richet's two-feature bio-pic about the bank robber who electrified the public with his daring prison breaks. (Part two, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1, opens in Boston on September 3.) The imposing Vincent Cassel (Irreversible) tears up the screen in Richet's solidly entertaining, if not groundbreaking, tale of a gangster's rise to notoriety.

In addition to examining their protagonist's pathology, Richet and writer Abdel Raouf Dafri give us a taste of the political backdrop in which he flourished. The provocative opening finds Mesrine, as a young soldier in the Algerian War, being ordered to participate in the torture of Arab rebels. The suggestion is that this boy from a nice petit bourgeois family had his soul hardened, if not shattered, by his war experience.

Back home in Paris, "Jacky" assists a buddy in relieving home owners of the valuables they've hidden from the tax man. Scenes of the early-'60s Pigalle underworld of pimps, whores, and gamblers recall the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. Jacques becomes the protégé of local kingpin Guido (Gérard Depardieu, who played a comic take-off of Mesrine in the 1980 film Inspector Blunder). The mysterious Guido's criminal exploits fund the activities of a right-wing extremist group.

The film spotlights the influence on Mesrine of three very different women. Prostitute Sarah (Florence Thomassin) bolsters his confidence while he's hitting his macho stride. Sofia (Elena Anaya), a nice Spanish girl whom he knocks up and marries, brings out his tenderness. (Just so we don't swoon over him as well, there's a scene in which he slugs her in the face). Finally, the glamorous Jeanne (Cécile De France) materializes as Bonnie to Mesrine's Clyde. After the couple cross the mob by robbing casinos, they relocate to Quebec and hold a millionaire for ransom. They're captured on a dusty highway in the American West.

Mesrine is at his wisecracking best when swarmed by reporters upon his return to Canada. In the penitentiary, the warden tries to break him with systematic sadistic treatment. (Screenwriter Dafri also wrote the superb prison picture A Prophet, which was shot after Mesrine.) The planning and execution of his escape form a dramatic climax, but even more crucial to defining Mesrine's character is his lunacy in keeping a promise to return to break out the guys who helped him.

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