Mesrine: Killer Instinct
Film review by: Witney Seibold
In the mid ’60s through the ’70s, Jacques Mesrine was one of France’s most notorious bank thieves. But far from being a suited gangster, or a calculatingly asshole-ish GoodFella, he was something of an irascible dandy, who would rob several banks in a single day just for the challenge and the bragging rights. That such a visible criminal eluded capture at all is something of a miracle. He was captured several times, and even escaped from several prisons, rightfully earning him a reputation in the underworld.
Jean-François Richet‘s “Mesrine: Killer Instinct” is the first half of a two-part film that details the life of the man. As an historical document, this film is first rate. It’s careful to get a lot of the period details correct, and actually feels like we’re seeing glimpses of the past; period films are not just about dressing people in the right costumes. Each era has a feel. As an action film, “Mesrine” moves along at a fantastically brisk clip, giving us all the highlights, without having to suffer through the dull expository bits. Perhaps the history was being fudged, but the storytelling was economical and clear.
The acting is also superb, especially on the part of Vincent Cassel as Mesrine. Mesrine was a criminal who managed to charm his way out of prisons, and into women’s pants. Cassel can come across as dangerous and mildly insane in one scene, but has the gumption to actually be confident about his personality, making him one of the most suave assholes in the room. Here is a man who, after robbing a bank, and perhaps killing a cop, can go to a public club, wave the money around, charm one woman, then leave her to charm another, and still come across as a friendly hero. Cassel is the main reason that “Mesrine” was so enjoyable.
The rest of the cast is not bad either. Elena Anaya plays the pretty woman that Masrine marries and has kids with, and who will ultimately be snubbed for the charms of the slinky Sarah (Florence Thomassin). Even heavy-hitter (and markedly beefy) Gerard Depardieu appears as a Godfather type.
But as pretty as the film is, and as good as the acting is, and as compelling an action film it is, it seems to slump a bit in terms of actual drama. You can’t help but be charmed by Cassel, and seduced by the filmmaking, but you may seem to notice how light everything is after a while. Most of the greatest crime flicks have some sense of moral ambiguity. Of anti-heroism. Of criminal ambivalence. Some sembalnce of tragedy. We know Mesrine will be murdered at the end (we see it in the film’s introduction), but we get no sense of how we should feel about that. We lie him, and feel sorry for him, I suppose, but we don’t necessarily care a great deal. This is a trifling action film that could have been a moving crime epic.
Also, since this is the first part of a two=part film, “Killer Instinct” ends kind of abruptly after a prison break. I suppose this is a problem with splitting up your film into two parts, though.
I still, however, recommend this film for its energy, its history lesson, and its indelible performances. Many theaters around town have been playing both “Killer Instinct,” and its follow-up “Public Enemy #1,” back-to-back. If you can find the time, I recommend you watch them that way.