Monday, November 28, 2011

Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Mesrine: Killer Instinct, or L'instinct de mort in its native French, is a film with many names.  Sometimes, it is called Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One (Part One), sometimes it is Mesrine: Part One - Killer Instinct.  Whatever you call it, this is the first entry in a two-part biopic about France's most famous criminal, Jacques Mesrine.  He was a murderer, a bank robber, a kidnapper, a celebrity and a best-selling author.  Not surprisingly, the story of man with so many proverbial hats doesn't fit into only one film.  Killer Instinct was originally released in theaters just four weeks before Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, which struck me as strange.  Then again, I probably would have gone with the above movie poster to promote the film, instead of this French one:
Why would you put two actors on the poster for a two-film story of one man?
I guess it just goes to show how little I know about French films.

Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) was not a normal person.  He came from an average French family, with a timid but hard-working father and an overbearing mother.  He fought for France in Algeria.  And yet, he somehow became an international criminal celebrity.  Mesrine: Killer Instinct doesn't try to answer exactly why that happened, but it does put throw out some possible explanations for how it came about.  I don't really like describing the plots for biopics, so here's a quick list of Jacques Mesrine's highlights in Killer Instinct:
  • He got his first taste of violence in Algeria
  • He quickly graduated to criminal thug after the war
  • He chose his criminal buddies over a life of peace and love with family
  • He robbed banks
  • He kidnapped a millionaire
  • He went to prison
  • He broke out of prison
  • He broke back into prison
The film opens with an arty introduction scene, with several shots being shown in different parts of the screen, all slightly out of sync, a la The Thomas Crown Affair.  Obviously, something is being planned.  We don't have to wait long for it to come to fruition; soon enough, Mesrine (and his girlfriend and her dog) are caught in a hail of gunfire.  Does Mesrine die?  If I was French, I'm sure I would know the answer to that.  But, since there is a second movie, I'll hazard a guess that he survives.  With that as the audience's introduction to the story, there is certainly a feeling of finiteness to Mesrine's tale.  The only question is whether Killer Instinct can suitably lead up to that moment of gunfire while still being the opening chapter in this story.

What makes Mesrine: Killer Instinct worth watching is Vincent Cassel's performance.  He is playing an obviously bad man, but he doesn't fill this character with remorse or some sort of psychosis.  Instead, Cassel treats Mesrine as a man who cannot abide any boundaries, even imagined ones.  When his wife implores him to choose a family life instead of a criminal career, he damn near executes her for trying to fence him in; that scene sheds light on most of Mesrine's important choices --- he will react violently and defiantly whenever he is told not to do something.  This is definitely the best performance I have seen from Cassel to date.
He's winking to acknowledge your jealousy over his awesome 'stache
His supporting cast is stuck with fairly boring characters, but they all do pretty well.  Gilles Lellouche and Gérard Depardieu have some fun as Mesrine's small-time criminal buddies, although I thought Depardieu was surprisingly intimidating for such a jolly-looking fellow. 
I couldn't find a shot of Depardieu laughing at racist jokes, so I went with his second-funniest scene
Roy Dupuis was a little more sinister as Mesrine's more hard-core criminal partner.  Does he deserve to share the movie poster with Cassel?  Definitely not.  Mesrine's anti-establishment attitude obviously made him a dangerous guy to be around, so naturally women found him irresistible.  I liked Elena Anaya as his wife, the one women who isn't portrayed as a pushover or whore in this film.  Cécile De France played a crazy woman just fine, but I wish she would have had more to work with toward the end of the movie.

With the opening scene of the film showing deliberate directorial intent, I assumed that Jean-François Richet's fingerprints would be all over this movie.  They actually aren't.  The film doesn't have a traditional dramatic arc, which is pretty common (sadly) in biopics, but it also feels disjointed, especially as the film jumps forward in time.  I really liked the attitude Richet seemed to take with Mesrine --- there are no rose-colored glasses here, but he isn't portrayed as a monster, either --- but I'm not exactly sure what point he is trying to make.  The action and violent scenes look pretty good, which is not a surprise, coming from the director of the sweet Assault on Precinct 13 remake, but I was surprised at how frequently Mesrine got hurt.  Violent men lead violent lives, but you usually don't see them suffer minor wounds in movies, so that was a nice touch.

A good lead actor and solid direction doesn't necessarily make for a great film, though.  While I liked Cassel, his performance wasn't magnetic enough to overcome an incomplete story.  When you consider that this film is nearly two hours long, this film should have had something definite to say about Mesrine.  Yes, it chronicled his rise to infamy.  That wasn't enough for me.  This felt like a Part One, like a two-hour setup for the next movie.  That's frustrating; while I understand that the two films are meant to be seen as a pair, I was expecting this to stand on its own more.  Will I watch Public Enemy Number One?  It's very likely, and I might be able to look on this a little more favorably when I have seen the full picture.  As it is, this is an interesting start to a fascinating character's tale, but it fails to provide a sense of resolution or even a sense of urgency to see the second part.  It just ends.  And that's not good enough.

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