Mesrine (Parts One and Two) Review

The Films

For some reason, we love watching gangsters. We're curious about what makes them tick, and perhaps we envy their very definite actions and like to ascribe a code of morals to them that we would secretly wish to adopt. Imagine it, rubbing out your enemies, teaching the disrespectful a lesson, and just taking other people's money when you want some. These are perhaps some of the things we'd do if we could and what stops us is that we are not free because we know there are rules and then consequences to breaking them. In the end, perhaps it is these consequences rather than civic pride that keeps us observant of society's code.
Jacques Mesrine, according to the two films directed by Jean Francois Richet, tried to be free of these consequences and his example shows just what such a choice may cause to happen. Brutalised by a war in Algeria, he returns to an adult life of the kind of obedience that he hated his collaborationist father for. Proper jobs, 9-5 and everyday bullshit doesn't suit him and he finds a shortcut to his desired lifestyle by using the very tools that the army taught him. As first an enforcer and then a trusty lieutenant, the seemingly fearless Mesrine rises in the underworld and he is soon putting his family at risk and exile overseas is his only way out.

In the states, Mesrine's pride and desire for respect brings him into conflict with his rich employer and kidnap and an elaborate police chase later, Mesrine finds himself extradited to Canada and in a hellhole of a prison. Torture doesn't break him and his escape from maximum security is followed by trying to liberate the prisoners still there by breaking back in. Becoming a folk hero, he returns to France and daring robberies and elaborate escapes make him a marked man for the authorities fighting the liberationist ideas he espouses in interviews and when he gets his days in court.

So why does a man who flirts with left and right with no real conviction end up as a folk hero and public enemy number one? Why do the forces of the political margins seek to claim his legacy to promote their beliefs and programmes? Why does the failed son, failed father and failed husband get this four hours of biography? And why, for all his crimes, personal and political, is all of the time spent with Mesrine so entertaining?
Well I suppose my questions are their own answers. Mesrine's existence was remarkable, a real example of an extraordinary "road less travelled". It's fascinating to see someone do all the things that we daren't and do them in such an unrepentant and committed way. What this two part biography also does is to reveal how the world around the man responded. Mesrine's example shames the prisons we build to punish his type, the policemen we create to catch him, and it exposes how the veneer of respectable democracy can cover up the state that compels others through it's own violence and crimes.

It is Mesrine's role in exposing this rotten democracy that holds the whole of this considerable undertaking together. The man himself is often vain, sometimes stupid and frequently cruel. He doesn't convince his partners of his ideological project, and his constant arrests don't suggest that he was an invulnerable mastermind. His instinctual actions are often driven by ego, and justified later by convenient rationalisation. In short, Mesrine is a man: racist, sexist, boneheaded and bursting with an impossible spirit.

Wisely Jean Francois Richet doesn't push the psychology or sociology too far, and he concentrates instead on delivering tense robberies, sieges, escapes, and ambushes. There is plenty of action in Mesrine, and this suits Vincent Cassel in the lead. Cassel is a gut driven performer who can descend into pantomime and gurning when given too free a reign, but this role suits him as he gets to act in and off the moment and needn't suggest too much depth or complexity.I believe that the original choice for this role was Benoit Magimel who possibly couldn't have brought the gaucheness that Cassel does, and this proves a perfect fit of story and actor.
The supporting cast are all good with Ludivine Sagnier and Cecile de France as love interests, and Depardieu as a patrician gangster. Attention to fashion and period detail is acute, and as a production with a large cast and range of locations this is assuredly competent. The film also functions in some way as a postwar history of France, and this ambitious mixture of politics, action, and crime never ceases to be enthralling or attempts to lecture or preach.

In fact, I enjoyed Mesrine so much that I watched it all in one sitting, compelled to see the end of this amazing story. That is a rare achievement in a time when you need three dimensions, emotional vacuity and James Cameron's hype to get people to sit down for nearly three hours in a row, and this long project keeps the viewer hooked throughout due to simple solid craft. Mesrine is simply terrific.

Technical Specs

Mesrine is out on either blu-ray or standard definition on the 25th January 2010. Momentum's standard definition set features anamorphic transfers for both films which are framed at around 2.35:1 bar the tricksy opening titles of the opening film. The palate of the film emphasises blue and red tones whilst maintaining a realistic aesthetic for the exterior sequences, and this transfer is very nice indeed with edges left natural, sharpness as good as you can want and a really nice judgement of contrast. Detail is surprisingly good for a standard definition presentation and my only gripe is that it must look even better on HD.
There is a single audio option with a high bit rate 5.1 mix which seems well defined in terms of both coverage and reproduction. Atmospheric noise and effects are well represented, the score sounds terrific and dialogue is rich and appropriately placed in the soundstage. The lower frequency effects are strong in order to support the action, and again it leaves you wondering just how good this would sound with the extra definition. For me though this was a very immersive listening experience which complemented two fine movies. English subs are optional and well translated.

The Disc

Both dual layer region two discs start with trailers for the District 13 sequel and Oliver Hofstadt's Go Fast, before Mr T turns up in his tank to sell you snickers. The menu design is straightforward with poster art for the movies supplemented by parts of the score and easy access to the extra features. Both discs carry making of documentaries for the individual films. The Killer Instinct documentary explains the origins of the project and follows filming across locations with footage of actors on set with Richet prompting, and interviews from cast and crew explaining their participation. It's edited and scored like a promotional piece, but Richet comes over as very committed and dedicated to research and convincing performances, and absolutely everyone announces that they adore Cassel. The making of for the second film is presented quite similarly but again there's plenty of evidence of the commitment to authenticity and good film-making from the incidental details coming from the interviews with cast and crew.

Finally there's a trailer on the first disc for the film.


Superb film-making and a perfect role for Cassel make these movies a must see for fans of the craft or the genre of crime movies. This presentation is pretty good for the format but may easily be surpassed on HD.

8 out of 10
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out of 10

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