DIR: Jean-François Richet • WRI: Abdel Raouf Dafri, Jean-François Richet • PRO: Thomas Langmann • DOP: Robert Gantz • ED: Hervé Schneid • DES: Emile Ghigo • CAST: Vincent Cassel, Cécile de France, Gérard Depardieu
The first instalment in a two-part cinematic interpretation of the life of infamous Public Enemy Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassell), opens with a warning. It asks the viewer to keep an open mind. Stating that no film can fully encompass the entirety of a human life and that there are multiple perspectives to each story, this message is compounded with a clever opening. Utilizing half-screen, dual-screen and finally multi-screen portrayals of an ageing Mesrine acting shiftily, each screen’s image differs slightly. Their point is made well, so I keep my snap judgements leashed.
Mind unbolted, I endeavour to stay objective. However, despite a hard term with the French army in the Algerian War, and some choice mistakes on his return, it becomes increasingly difficult to shake the feeling that Jacque Mesrine is anything other than an uncompromising villain. Whoops, seems like a judgement to me, better pry that mind open again.
There are glimmers of hope for the character throughout: the kindness shown to his favourite hooker and his favourite wife, his excitement over his firstborn child, his attempt to make an honest living. However, even when benefiting him with every doubt available, the impression that, rather than being forced to a live of crime, Mesrine chooses it willingly, is the one that imprints itself on the mind.
In one instance the protagonist/antagonist, evidently not best pleased that he was shot at while his daughter was present, has a good rant about rules, honour, principles, etc. For a man who has spent the past hour thieving and murdering, it’s a surprise he is familiar with the concepts. Still straining to keep that mind gaping though, we grant the man his love for his kids! They’re the reason he lives this awful life surely? He’s doing this for his kids! That’s admirable; maybe I have been wrong about Mesrine. Maybe… Well, wait a few minutes, then listen carefully for the slam of your own mind closing.
This is not to say the execution of the cinematic process by director Jean François Richet is without merit. Far from it. The script is agreeable, the clear and frequently inventive camerawork impressive, the soundtrack hits the mark and the pacing (for the most part) keeps up a respectable level of intrigue and excitement. Mesrine may be greedy, selfish and aggressive, but the car wreck of a life interests the viewer as much as a real one would. It’s hard to look away.
Additionally, there were admirable supporting characters in the form of his wife Sophia, his parents, and even to an extent his charming fellow gang member, Paul. However, these were minor parts and overshadowed by the constant presence of a perpetually detestable titular character.
The film takes a sudden change of pace in the last quarter, once Mesrine is imprisoned. Soon we are watching an ‘escape caper’, showcasing a (marginally) more likeable and determined Jacque Mesrine, though perhaps only because he has no one to kill or rob. How’s that for an open mind?!
The last act juggles genres such as psychological thriller, prison escape, and action film, having spent the initial acts preparing you for nothing of the sort. Additionally it gives unsatisfying accounts of the apparent jump in relevance of certain support characters. The viewer is left wondering just how Mesrine is suddenly so chummy with characters that were until this final act minor or even hostile. Perhaps it’s his people skills.
Films that end on cliff-hangers or are a part of a wider arc can be frustrating, considering they are not self-contained stories. Mesrine: Killer Instinct, however, does a decent job of rounding up the antics of Jacque Mesrine which earned him the notorious moniker ‘Public Enemy Number 1.’ And although the pacing of the final act is far more erratic and unclear compared to the smooth swelling at the beginning of the tale (it wouldn’t be a finale otherwise), the overall product is gritty, well realised, well acted, interesting and exciting.
The biggest drawback to this film, however, and no doubt a fatal drawback for a lot of viewers, is the absence of anyone to root for. I had a strong distain for Jacque Mesrine throughout and I tried damn hard to like this man. Considering he was the epicentre of the movie (and the next), Mesrine: Killer Instinct was not a film I enjoyed watching, for all its merits.
It is a powerful film, loaded with emotion. Just be warned: they taper towards the negative end of that spectrum.
Perhaps part two will be different. I’ll keep an open mind.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct is released on 7th August 2009
Mesrine: Killer Instinct – Official Website