Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mesrine: Killer Instinct


For the benefit of the uninitiated, Jacques Mesrine can probably still lay claim – for all that he died over 30 years ago – to the title of “France’s most notorious criminal”. A bank robber, kidnapper, ice-cold killer, accomplished jail-breaker, memoirist, self-styled political activist, something of a master of disguise and an all-round bad mo’ fo’, it was inevitable that someone would make a movie about him.

Indeed, the first cinematic attempt to capture his life and crimes came just five years after his death: ‘Mesrine’, written and directed by André Génovès, starred Nicolas Silberg as Mesrine and concentrated on the last 18 months of his life, from his escape from La Santé prison to his death in a police operation that was little more than a sanctioned assassination.

In 2008, Jean-François Richet premiered his two-part biopic with Vincent Cassel in the lead role. Unlike Génovès’s film, Richet’s epic covers the entirety of Mesrine’s widely-reported career, kicking off in the late 50s as he returns from military service in Algeria and gets in involved in the Parisian underworld under the aegis of mob boss Guido (Gerard Depardieu).


An early scene has a uniformed Mesrine standing guard while a couple of other soldiers brutally interrogate an Algerian freedom fighter over the location of an incendiary device. The prisoner’s sister is hauled in and Mesrine is ordered to shoot her. Instead, he blows away the terrorist. It’s a histrionic and utterly uncontextualised scene (Mesrine’s political ideals don’t surface till the second film and he doesn’t really act on them other than talking about getting involved with the Red Brigade), and I can’t help feeling that, as with much in both films, it merely serves to tick a box as Richet waltzes us through a Jacques Mesrine “greatest hits” compilation.

‘Killer Instinct’ just about makes the dance worthwhile. Richet nails the late 50s/early 60s period recreation as Mesrine embraces the criminal lifestyle, gets involved with the good-natured Sofia (Elena Anaya) and tries to reform after a prison sentence for armed robbery; redundancy and the lure of easy money by hooking up with his erstwhile cronies combine to drive him back to a life of crime.

Richet plays much of this in the vein of Jean-Pierre Melville. An interlude in Canada and the US – Mesrine accompanied by new girlfriend Jeanne (Cecile de France) – lets the director cut loose with some explicitly American iconography, which in one respect is apposite since Melville himself rooted his aesthetic in American crime cinema and in another is completely hackneyed due to the over-reliance on Bonnie and Clyde style tropes.


An abrupt shift into the prison break genre follows when Mesrine is arrested, extradited to Quebec and sentenced to the St-Vincent-de-Paul maximum security facility. This section plays like ‘Midnight Express’ as sadistic guards routinely beat the shit out of Mesrine and hose him down with jets of cold water. His escape is so laughably easy that it makes ‘Two Way Stretch’ look like ‘The Shawshank Redemption’; if you didn’t know it was based on fact, you’d find your suspension of disbelief stretched to breaking point.

Ranking equally in the this-would-be-fucking-ludicrous-if-it-hadn-t-actually-happened stakes is the climactic scene where Mesrine and fellow escapee Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis) attempt to spring their fellow prisoners, provoking a gun battle with the prison guards and sustaining injuries but failing in their intent.

Richet compresses a hell of a lot of incident into 110 minutes. ‘Killer Instinct’ occasionally feels like it ought to be a two and half hour movie, with the narrative and the passage of time and the character interrelationships having the proper time to breathe and make sense and be developed. Instead, a sense of truncation lies heavily across the production. Script and editing conspire to ellipsis. Ultimately, the production design, the period recreation and Cassel’s flamboyant central performance carry it. No classic, but enough decent material to perk one’s interest for part two.

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