Mesrine: Killer Instinct Review

Vincent Cassel stars in the first of a two-part action-triller biopic of France’s most notorious criminal, Public Enemy No.1 in France and Canada in the 1970s.

The first of two films based on two autobiographies by the most notorious of French gangsters Jacques Mesrine, Jean-François Richet’s Mesrine: Killer Instinct is an explosive, non-stop action thriller detailing an incredible series of transcontinental crimes, all perpetrated by one man, that would scarcely be credible even in a Hollywood movie were it not for the fact that everything shown is true, at least according to known facts and the personal testimony of a man once judged to be Public Enemy No. 1.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct charts his rise to notoriety in the 1960s, Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) starting out in petty crime and burglary with an old friend Paul (Gilles Lellouche) and finding work as a hired hand in a mob with Parisian gang leader Guido (Gérard Depardieu). When his aggressive behaviour leads to a brutal killing, Mesrine flees France with girlfriend Jeanne Schneider (Cécile de France) to Canada, hoping to start life anew and taking on legitimate work, but he falls in with Quebecois nationalists, and turns – partly through personal reasons – into kidnapping and armed bank robbery. Eventually caught racing through Monument Valley by pursuing US State troops, Mesrine and Schneider are arrested, deported back to Canada and incarcerated in separate maximum security prisons – but Mesrine doesn’t intend seeing out his prison sentence at the Quebec Special Corrections Unit.

Racing through an incredible catalogue of robberies, kidnappings and murders, there isn’t a great deal of time left in Killer Instinct’s almost two-hour running time to spend trying to analyse Jacques Mesrine or account for his antisocial behaviour – which would perhaps in any case be a fruitless exercise – but relevant details are provided on his personal life, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about his attitude and motivations. Certainly, the film notes his violent activities and racist tendencies as a soldier fighting in Algeria, so that it is clear when he returns to Paris that there is no likelihood of him ever settling down into the nice, steady job at a lace-making factory that his father has arranged for him. In an interesting contrast to Michael Mann’s recent film another notorious gangster accorded the title of Public Enemy No. 1, there’s no movie convention attempt either to mitigate Mesrine’s actions in the love of the one woman in his life. Women and prostitutes are plentiful as part of the gangster lifestyle and are treated with due respect, but only in as far as being the personal property of the mob and as a measure of status, and they are accordingly used as bargaining tools when necessary. When push comes to shove then, Mesrine makes his allegiances perfectly and brutally clear to his Spanish wife Sofia (Elena Anaya), without even having to be asked to make a choice.

There most significant woman in Mesrine’s life during this period is Jeanne Schneider, but their relationship is that of a Bonnie and Clyde, and his loyalty to her, extending out beyond all reason when he promises to break her out of a maximum security prison – an almost suicidal endeavour – is no more than the loyalty he would extend towards any of his criminal associates, as is demonstrated in the equally crazy attack on the Quebec SPC. Performances are terrific all around, perfectly pitched to add gravity and weight to a larger-than-life story. A bulked-up Vincent Cassel is an imposing presence, dangerously charming with women, controlled in his fury but reckless in his targets, and he’s very capably supported by partners in crime Gilles Lellouche, Roy Dupuis and Cécile de France. Gérard Depardieu is surprisingly restrained, wisely sitting back and letting Cassel take the reins, but his Guido is also more of a stock gangster figure, never really showing much depth or personality.

The charge of course could also be made – as it has been when the film and its second part opened in France – that Killer Instinct, as depicted by Richet (Assault on Precinct 13 remake), glamorises the lifestyle of a notorious criminal by shooting it as a high-powered action thriller. There seems to be no way of avoiding this if one sticks closely to the known facts, but ironically, that also makes it seem too incredible to be true. Even if the script does deliver some great punchy lines – “No-one kills me until I tell them” – the film certainly doesn’t depict Mesrine as anything other than a loose cannon who can only have one fate in store for him. That aspect of a public personality in the 1970s and his inevitable fate is covered in the second part of this biography, Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, released at the end of the month.


Updated: Aug 21, 2009

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