Vincent Cassel is a bad-ass. Any man who claims Italian Goddess Monica Bellucci his own while outshining George Clooney and Brad Pitt in “Ocean’s 12” deserves such entitlement. Cassel, whose made a career out of playing thieves in his native France, has an innate deviance behind his striking presence that one wonders if he would've taken a life of crime if not for his thespian talents.
Fittingly, Cassel is the only choice imaginable for the role of Jacques Mesrine, an infamous French outlaw whose two decade reign in the criminal underworld included numerous bank robberies, murders, and perhaps his ultimate claim to fame, four prison escapes. Mesrine, whose unrepentant criminal ways were matched by his undeniable charisma and cynical humor, makes him deserving of a cinematic testimony. Two movies on his antics are delivered, “The Killer Instinct” and “Public Enemy #1”. So, is this iconic gangster’s legend worth the “deux” treatment?
Director Jean-François Richet (the “Assault on Precinct 13” remake) and screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri (who wrote the acclaimed “A Prophet”) follow a new trend of episodic features that chronicle historical figures like Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” and Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos.” Part one, “The Killer Instinct” is adapted by Mesrine’s own autobiography of the same title. “The Killer Instinct” starts with a young Mesrine as a solider the French Army during its conflict with Algeria, and finds him executing a prisoner. A few years after the war, Mesrine struggles to adjust to civilian life as he resides in his parents’ modest apartment. Unable to function as an honest man, Mesrine’s delinquent tendencies find him working petty crimes for mafia head Guido (Gérard Depardieu). “The Killer Instinct” also follows Mesrine’s failed family life with Sofia (Elena Anaya) and his exile in Quebec, where his association with political rebel Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis) and lover Jeanne Schneider (Cécile De France) would lead Mesrine to become one of the World’s
most wanted men.
Part two, “Public Enemy #1,” continues Mesrine’s criminal path and growing celebrity. This follow-up focuses on his partnership with fellow prison escapee François Besse (Mathieu Amalric) and their personality clashes. Additionally, Mesrine finds a new lover, Sylvia (Ludivine Sagnier), whose youth makes her impressionable to Mesrine’s illicit lifestyle. Finally, this closing chapter sees Mesrine thinking of himself as a class warrior, one that gets him involved in a kidnapping of a bourgeoisie and working with underground political mercenaries.
So, after four hours of homicides, shoot-outs, sex, and plain mayhem, is it too much for a scumbag like Mesrine? For the most part, while it could’ve been shorter, I will say no. The two films cramp many of the French bandit’s violent occupation, but in close measure shows the vulnerable side of Mesrine. No, Richet never dares to redeem his anti-hero, who’s a son of a bitch through and through. However, Richet’s epic isn’t afraid to present Mesrine as a complete person, one that carries certain regret for the people he loved and took for granted. Cassel is brilliant as a man of violence who can tap his humanity, keeping him from being a total monster. The “Mesrine” saga grants the villain sympathy while having no quails in displaying his nature.
Richet, who won the César in 2008 for best director, reconstructs some of the memorable scenes in classic gangster films like “Goodfellas” with a touch of “Pavillion” and “The Great Escape”(Note, for those who were sicken by Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro stabbing a man in a trunk will be shocked to know Cassel and Depardieu actually go one better, trust me, its pure carnage). Accompanied by a Carmine Coppola influenced score by
Marcus Trumpp and Marco Beltrami, “The Killer Instinct” and “Public Enemy #1” appear like a French homage to American Crime cinema. Furthermore, both films have the best use of split screens since Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream,” a visual puzzle that comes together beautifully in the films’ bloody bow. Relentless in pace, uncompromisingly violent and morbidly humorous, Mesrine’s merciless life is exhilaratingly depicted.
Mesrine: The Killer Instinct/Public Enemy #1