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Mesrine: Parts 1 and 2 - Review

Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

Killer Instinct Verdict

JACQUES Mesrine is to French culture what John Dillinger is to American – that is to say, a gangster who captured the imagination of a nation for the way in which he stood up to the state.

Like Dillinger, he was ultimately gunned down in cold blood by the authorities who had exhausted other attempts to silence and hold him.

It’s ironic – and an embarrassment of riches – to be gifted not one but three movies in the same year that explore these fascinating historical characters.

Mann’s Public Enemies looked at Dillinger and, by virtue of the star presence of Johnny Depp, will be the box office winner. But Mesrine’s story – as conveyed in Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1 – is every bit as good, if not marginally better.

Killer Instinct is released three weeks ahead of Public Enemy No.1 and chronicles Mesrine’s rise.

It’s brash, sexy, violent and features a mesmerising central performance from Vincent Cassel.

The film picks up after Mesrine has served his country in the Algerian war and returns to his home town of Clichy, outside Paris, in ’60s France, where he quickly turns to crime to pay his way, while seducing any woman who takes his fancy.

Along the way, he’s mentored by a local crime boss (Gerard Depardieu) but quickly develops such a formidable reputation that he is forced to flee to America where he continues to get into trouble given the outlandish nature of his escapades.

The film draws to a close in the aftermath of Mesrine’s bungled attempt to return to a US prison and free some of his former inmate colleagues.

Throughout, audiences will be transfixed by Cassel’s energetic central performance and the muscular nature of Jean-Francois Richet’s direction.

Both star and director ensure that Mesrine is a complex individual – charming one minute, psychopathic the next. But they don’t seek to condemn or condone his actions, rather allowing events to play out so that audiences can decide.

As a result, the film barely stops to draw breath, thrusting us from one amazing exploit to the next, while offering glimpses of the characters that helped to shape Mesrine’s outlook on life (whether it was his father, his mentor or genteel first wife).

This does tend to make things feel a little episodic, and ill serves a couple of the supporting cast, but it’s not to the film’s lasting detriment as Cassel’s towering central performance deserves to be the main focal point.

Indeed, such is the spell he weaves that audiences will probably be counting down the days to see Public Enemy No.1 to find out the circumstances that contributed to Mesrine’s violent end.

For as much as offering a searing portrait of the man behind the myth, Richet’s film also serves as a fascinating exploration of the ultimate futility of crime… as a man who refused to live by society’s rules gradually awakens to the fact that his existence can’t have a happy ending.

Trust us, part two is worth the wait!

In French, with subtitles

Public Enemy: No.1 Verdict

Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1

HARD to believe but the second part of Jean-Francois Richet’s gangster epic on French criminal Jacques Mesrine may just be better than the first.

Where Killer Instinct took us on a rapid journey through Mesrine’s rise, Public Enemy No.1 takes a little more time to explore the psychology behind the gangster’s reign.

On this occasion, he has accepted who he is and, by extension, what fate inevitably holds in store for him. And it’s during these insights into the criminal mind that Vincent Cassel really excels.

The actor continues to imbue the character with a fierce ambiguity – charming, charismatic and devil-may-care one minute, ruthless, violent and unpredictable the next.

Viewers are left in no doubt that this was a criminal whose acts could be as abhorrent as they were audacious. And yet he remains a mesmerising presence to be around, a maverick who felt victimized by the state, and who was ultimately gunned down by people even more violent and less tolerant than himself.

Set in the period from 1974 to his assassination in 1979, the film picks up as Mesrine is back in France, and in police custody, facing justice for his crimes.

After escaping a courtroom and kidnapping the judge at gunpoint, however, Mesrine is declared Public Enemy No.1 and finds an adversary in dogged pursuer, Commander Broussard.

Broussard soon corners Mesrine who is condemned to a maximum security prison where he writes his first memoirs, establishing himself as a household name and anti-hero across France.

With fellow inmate Francois Besse (Mathieu Amalric) he stages another daring escape and disappears into the lawless underworld, taunting the police and reinventing himself as a celebrity criminal through his savvy manipulation of the media.

Richet’s film works on so many levels that it’s difficult to heap enough praise on it.

The performances are exemplary, the recreations searingly authentic and the various kidnappings and bank robberies jaw-droppingly exciting.

Even the final moments, which chronicle the assassination of Mesrine from the police officers’ perspectives, are brilliantly done, lending the film and its main character a poignancy and lasting impression you may not have initially seen coming.

Yet Mesrine is not a celebration of gangster culture or violence, but rather a complex examination of an enigmatic individual that demands close attention from viewers.

Of the supporting performances, former Bond villain Amalric is on great form as Mesrine’s ally, while Ludivine Sagnier provides a deeply alluring presence as his love interest… a woman who wants nothing more than to escape the lifestyle she feels sure will get them both killed.

But it’s Cassel who will deservedly get most of the plaudits, delivering a powerhouse performance that deserves to rank among the greats in the genre.

Put back-to-back, meanwhile, the Mesrine films deserve to be hailed as a masterpiece.

In French, with subtitles

Part 1 – Certificate: 15
Running time: 2hrs 13mins
Part 2 – Certificate: 15
Running time: 113mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: January 25, 2010