by Tony Dayoub
Opening today in limited release throughout the U.S., Mesrine: Killer Instinct is a star vehicle showcasing the talents of its leading man, Vincent Cassel. Although quite well-known internationally, particularly for his lead roles in Irreversible and La Haine (oh yeah... and he's married to one of the most beautiful women in the world), domestically he's had to settle for character parts in films like Eastern Promises, and the Ocean's franchise. Being that Mesrine feels more like an American gangster flick than some of the notable Gallic ones, this might be the best chance for the talented Cassel to finally cross over big.
Jacques Mesrine made a big splash in the sixties and seventies for his bold, reckless assaults on banks, handful of spectacular prison breaks, and ability to blend in while a fugitive in all parts of the world. The Frenchman was arrested in places as far-flung from his homeland as Canada and even here in the U.S. Romanticized by his countrymen, mostly because of the autobiography he authored while in prison (the film is based on it, in part), it is a mistake to call him a French "Robin Hood" as I've read in other reviews. He may have robbed from the rich, but he never really gave to anyone but himself. He met an ignominious end in what some would call an execution by police who finally tired of his antics. I'm certainly not giving anything away by stating that since this is where Killer Instinct begins.
Director Jean-François Richet (whose 2005 remake of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 was rather well-executed) explores Mesrine's motivations through flashback. One of the more interesting psychosexual aspects of the film is his attraction to strong women. This stems from his upbringing in a matriarchal household where his domineering mother pushed his hapless working-class father around quite a bit. Early on, a confontation with his dad Paul (Gilles Lellouche) over the man's passivity yields a basic explanation (within the film at least) as to why the lower middle class Mesrine would turn to crime. He finds a code of manhood there which he can use as a model for behavior. His boss Guido (a gloriously fat and decadent Gérard Depardieu) best embodies this surrogate father figure he looks for. Yet with free hookers at Mesrine's disposal, and often times, even in serious love with him, he still falls for women who resist (at least initially) his bad boy charms like his wife Sofia (Elena Anaya), or even better yet, girlfriend Jeanne (Cécile De France) who actually participates in his crime as Bonnie to his Clyde.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct covers about 13 years in the gangster's life, beginning with his time as a soldier in Algeria on through his fruitful and dangerous partnership with the Canadian Jean-Paul Mercier (a magnetically low-key Roy Dupuis). As a result, Richet falls victim to a tendency for depicting the story in episodes. Much of the film's first hour reminded me of the tepid Blow (1991), which also slickly highlighted period detail and gorgeous women in a choppy-paced biography of a drug dealer. But Killer Instinct takes a darker turn midway through the film, where Mesrine spends time in prison tortured by a sadistic warden and his guards, a sequence which informs the rest of the narrative, turning it into a claustrophobic cage from which Cassel prowls around at his most ferocious. At times Cassel's performance recalls the wiry, rangy young De Niro of Mean Streets (1973) in its explosive inevitability.
I'm trying to dance around giving Mesrine: Killer Instinct anything but a qualified good review. This is only the first part of a diptych (the second part opens next week), and a lot of the ultimate success of Mesrine as a whole depends on how the second part plays out. Will it glorify the criminal? I hope and predict not. But ignoring the conclusion, watch Mesrine: Killer Instinct for Cassel's dynamic turn.