Mesrine: Killer Instinct, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1
Published: March 9, 2011
Mesrine: Killer Instinct
Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1
Music Box Home Entertainment
Colin Firth really swept up the awards recently for his star turn in The King’s Speech. Bully for him—no, seriously. A thoughtful role for a thoughtful actor who knows how to bring many dimensions to human vulnerability. And, really now, not everyone can make a king so charming and human.
The thing is, more actors have been having more fun playing less savory real-life characters and getting completely overlooked for their strong work. Since 2000 a wealth of actors have made what should have been star-making turns as some truly frightening criminals: Eric Bana in 2000’s riveting Chopper, Thomas Jane in 2003’s overlooked Stander; Tom Hardy in 2008’s absolutely batshit Bronson. And last year, two actors went for broke in two multi-part, multi-hour biopics. Édgar Ramírez often carried Olivier Assayas’ 300-plus-minute epic Carlos entirely on his own, and Vincent Cassel makes writer/director Jean-François Richet’s two-part study of French gangster Jacques Mesrine gripping even when the by-the-numbers crime flick fimmaking does not.
Those two parts, Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1, cover Mesrine’s life in almost exhausting detail. In fact, Public Enemy, which covers Mesrine’s return to France in the early 1970s as a notorious criminal and his various very public activities before being gunned down by police in 1979, feels a tad weighted down by an effort to have the movie live up to the man’s self-mythology. (Mesrine wrote an autobiography in prison, titled The Death Instinct, which he had smuggled out and published.)
Director Richet, who added commendable muscle to his 2005 Assault on Precinct 13 remake, does much better with the creation of the infamous man/myth in Killer Instinct. Born to a relatively normal middle-class family north of Paris, Mesrine served in the French army in late-1950s Algeria, was pressured into treating prisoners quite unsavorily, and returned to France realizing he had developed a bit of a taste for the rough stuff. He meets and falls in love with Sofia (Elena Anaya), a young Spanish woman who bears him three kids, whom he leaves with his parents after Sofia leaves him because he won’t give up his criminal ways. He has much better romantic luck with Jeanne Schneider (Cécile de France, looking mid-’60s amazing in brown wig and glasses). Richet gives them a great example of crime flick meeting cute: Mesrine walks into a bar and a woman offers to buy him a drink. Jeanne says he’s with her instead and they trade a series of flirtatious pleasantries before Jeanne offers, poker-faced, that she’s ready for anything. Cut to the pair of them shotgunned-up walking into a froufrou club to rob everybody there blind.
It’s one of many crime genre flourishes in Killer Instinct, the sort of fast-moving, heavily stylized sequences that have been part of action flicks since the ’60s. And they work in this first installment because Mesrine is still in the process of becoming infamous, not yet the larger-than-life media personality he is come Public Enemy. Cassel—in a series of mustaches and ’60s-into-’70s suits—masterfully calibrates his performance to Mesrine’s criminal arc. Richet doesn’t have the same sort of subtle control, but come Public Enemy, Cassel’s performance is so on-point you forgive the movie’s plodding denouement.
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