Mesrine: Killer Instinct
Crime with a French twist
Can you have too much of a good thing or a bad man? “Mesrine: Killer Instinct’’ is a true-life French gangster film so in awe of its subject that it can’t fit the entire story into one film. Part two, “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1,’’ opens here next Friday — are we supposed to need a week to recover? — but until an abrupt non-ending, the first film has enough criminal brutality and outlaw bravura to render a moviegoer happily knocked about.
It also has a brooding, dead-eyed star performance by Vincent Cassel as Jacques Mesrine, whose two-continent, two-decade crime spree encompassed kidnapping, murder, multiple prison escapes, and the sort of larger-than-life charisma that newspaper editors fall for time and again. Based on Mesrine’s 1977 jailhouse memoir, “L’Instinct de Mort,’’ the film is to the politically fraught late 1960s what Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies’’ was to the Great Depression: a portrait of a talented sociopath who used the times to his own greedy ends.
What “Mesrine: Killer Instinct’’ doesn’t have is much purpose. The opening title card warns that “All films are part fiction — no movie can reproduce a story faithfully. Each to his point of view.’’ Fine, but writer-director Jean-François Richet doesn’t really have a point of view other than that his subject was one scary, fascinating guy. That’s all right as far as it goes, but for a four-hour investment you may want it to go further.
Cassel’s the whole show; luckily, he has the chops for it. The actor, probably best known here as the rival thief in “Ocean’s Twelve’’ and “Ocean’s Thirteen,’’ has a lean switchblade tension to his body that keeps you on edge throughout — Cassel’s Mesrine is whip-smart but it’s not his brains people fear. In this telling, he comes out of the French army in 1960 (his specialty was torturing Algerian rebels for information) and falls into a life of crime mostly out of boredom. He’s fast on his feet and he can improvise — when the owners of the house he’s burglarizing come home unexpectedly, Mesrine convinces them he’s the investigating detective — and the local Mr. Big is impressed. Gerard Depardieu plays Mr. Big, so maybe we should call him Mr. Extra Large.
The enjoyment of the film comes from watching Mesrine’s ambitions grow slowly but exponentially; the shock is in being reminded and re-reminded of his sadism. “Mesrine: Killer Instinct’’ is too smart to romanticize its subject even as it watches with amazement as he escapes from a supposedly impregnable prison (and storms back a few weeks later for some friends he forgot), but the filmmakers do gild the lily here and there. At one point, the real Mesrine and his girlfriend (Cécile de France) fled to Canada and the United States, but the movie has the couple caught in Arizona rather than Arkansas. It’s forgivable, I guess: A police chase looks better in the desert and, besides, our states probably all sound the same if you’re French.
By the end of this installment, Mesrine is perched on the edge of infamy. He’s a media darling — look, he robbed two banks in 10 minutes! — but we know better. We’ve seen him put a gun in the mouth of the mother of his children (Spanish actress Elena Anaya) and toy with an Algerian pimp (Abdelhafid Metalsi) before dispatching him in a sequence of ugly suspense worthy of Scorsese. The fractured visual approach Richet uses — heavy on split-screens and mirror reflections — suggests the real Jacques Mesrine was unknowable. On the contrary, he was probably no more and no less than the shiny, shallow beast we see onscreen. Whether Part 2 can make him matter remains to be seen.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.