By Don Simpson | September 10, 2010
Director: Jean-François Richet
Writer(s): Jacques Mesrine (book), Abdel Raouf Dafri (screenplay, adaptation, scenario), Jean-François Richet (adaptation)
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Cécile De France, Gérard Depardieu, Gilles Lellouche, Roy Dupuis, Elena Anaya
I typically have problems with epically episodic films. I also really hate when films begin with the end of the story…in this case November 2, 1979 in the Porte de Clignancourt neighborhood of Paris. A burly, middle-aged man wearing an obvious wig and beard gets into a gold BMW with his redheaded girlfriend and her dog. As they approach the expressway, a blue truck pulls in front of them. The canvas tail-gate lifts, revealing four men holding rifles. They open fire. Fifty-two shots in total, 14 of which hit the man in the wig…killing Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel).
From there, we go back to the very beginning, to Mesrine’s introduction to violence — the Algerian War. Officially a parachutist-commando, Mesrine volunteered for “special duty” which constituted executing Algerian prisoners. In his first book, Mesrine writes that upon his return to France (in 1959) he decided that he would attack society for damaging his “humanity” in a “false cause.”
As promised, Mesrine returns to France, commencing a 20-year spree of robbing banks and kidnapping aged millionaires. Mesrine escaped from prison four times including two high-security prisons, he even broke back into one of the prisons in an attempt to free his friends. Mesrine claimed he was an anarchist, protested the inhumane conditions of high security prisons, and described his acts of violence as acts of revolution against the state. Banks and millionaires steal from the proletariat — why not turn things around and steal from the banks and millionaires?
Mesrine: Killer Instinct, the first two hours of the four-hour Mesrine saga directed by Jean-François Richet (Assault on Precinct 13), features dozens of adrenaline-enriched heists, shoot-outs, and brawls; there are also ample seductions. The narrative leaps from one noteworthy episode on Mesrine’s lifeline to the next with significant drive and purpose, but never until each scene is fully fleshed out. The structure may be disorienting and the jumps may seem random, but each of the episodes begins to make more sense as future episodes take place. Mesrine: Killer Instinct is like a giant jigsaw puzzle which eventually forms the shape of Mesrine’s psyche…or at least a clue as to what makes Mesrine tick, tick, tick like a time-bomb ready to explode: Mesrine’s desire for a father figure (his own father was a weakling and a Nazi collaborator); the social-economic climate in which Mesrine exists; the many ladies of Mesrine’s past; Mesrine’s many partners in crime; and the time Mesrine spent in high security prison.
The incomparable Cassel (Read My Lips, Irreversible, Eastern Promises) owns the screen, chomping away at each and every frame of celluloid. Cassel’s Mesrine is egotistical and arrogant, yet psychologically flawed. He murders people and steals with little or no remorse, as if lacking a conscience or soul. Yet no matter how evil of a man he is, Cassel’s Mesrine is able to sweep any woman off her feet — you might even say he has a similar effect on the audience…at least at times. Cassel toys with us, woos us, pleads for our sympathy. He often plays the card of the underdog or the anti-hero; that is until you wrap your head around the real Mesrine: the man who murdered so many innocent people; the man who robbed banks only to lavishly throw the money away (via gambling and extravagant expenditures); the man who abused the women of his life and abandoned his family.