Music Box Films // 2008 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // March 14th, 2011
Public enemy No. 1
The first in a two-part film epic of crime and French accents, Mesrine: Killer Instinct: Part 1 is pure unadulterated mobster mayhem, a fictionalized recreation of the infamous exploits of real-life crazy man Jacques Mesrine: kidnapper, robber, murderer, and prison escape artist.
Fresh from the Algerian War, Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel, Black Swan) returns to France angry, cold, and ready to make money. He falls in quickly with a mob crew led by Guido (Gérard Depardieu, Cyrano de Bergerac) and carves a path through Paris, then Montreal, robbing and murdering and escaping out of the occasional prison.
As new-school gangster films go, Mesrine: Killer Instinct is appropriately violent, grisly, and yes, a little reminiscent of the meteoric rise of an ambitious Cuban fellow named Tony. Unlike Mr. Montana in Scarface, a fictional drug baron millionaire, Mesrine was a real-life criminal, a glorified thug who perpetrated murder, robbery and daring prison escapes with such astonishing bravado and charisma and a flaming disregard to authority and consequence that he could only have been a Frenchman. His legacy lives on in a hastily penned autobiography Mesrine wrote during one of his many incarcerations, in which he bragged openly of his felonious exploits. The guy had some serious stones. It's one thing to escape prison, but another thing entirely to come back to the same prison a few weeks later with a machine gun to kill a whole bunch of guards and try and spring the rest of the population. That's just one example.
Mesrine is cocky, arrogant, and cruel from the get-go, emerging from the Algerian War fully formed as a cold, ruthless gangster in the making. All balls and testosterone, he carves a path through France, working his way up the gangster totem pole, extracting vengeance on those who do him wrong. However, like all good gangsters, or at least the ones that get autobiographical films made of their exploits, Mesrine is a man with a code. A warped and perverted sense of justice make him a complex protagonist; he is a man equally as likely to risk his life protecting the honor of a prostitute as he is to shove a gun into the mouth of his wife. Hey, a French gangster in the 1960s isn't exactly the role model of chivalry.
The casting is very good. Vincent Cassel is scientifically built in a laboratory for the lead role. He has that perfect blend of cocky arrogance, sexual charisma, and villainous scowling that lesser actors struggle to achieve, like a Parisian Tony Montana. It feels weird to see Gérard Depardieu playing someone named "Guido," but he plays the surly yet fatherly gangster role well. A nose that crooked suits a gun-toting thug. Plus, it's always great to see venerable Canadian actor Roy Dupuis (Shake Hands with the Devil) get some screen time in an international production; he rarely makes it outside of our borders. Elena Anaya has a fiery but short role as Sofia, Mesrine's husband.
On the negative side, Mesrine: Killer Instinct suffers from balance and pacing issues. Like all good autobiographical films about murderous gangsters, this oneleaps about like an encyclopedia entry from event to event, gunfight to gunfight, robbery to robbery -- a life in fast forward that skips ahead months, often years at a time. The film's adherence to the criminal timeline of Mesrine's life leaves little time for character development. Outside of one poignant scene with the protagonist arguing with his father, we get little sense of Mesrine as a man, or of his motivations. One minute, he is terrorizing and murdering his way through the streets, the next, we cut to a happy family life where Mesrine has sworn off crime and is on the straight, only to jump to a bank robbery. Too often, the narrative feels perplexing, even schizophrenic.
We received a screener copy of Mesrine: Killer Instinct, so we can't speculate on the retail product. Our copy had satisfactory video and audio, burned-on English subtitles, and mandatory trailers stuck at the start of the film. Amusingly, one of the trailers was for the film itself. Subtle marketing, that.
Sticklers for historical accuracy may protest the tweaking to facts and chronology, but one cannot help but admire the ferocity and arrogant charm of Mesrine: Killer Instinct: Part 1. Pacing issues keep the film from achieving brilliance, but fans of gritty gangster epics like Scarface will feel right at home here.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Music Box Films
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site