Thursday, May 5, 2011

MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT (L'Instinct de mort, 2008)

Jacques Mesrine was once equated with Clyde Barrow but was more of a French Dillinger to the point of being dubbed "Public Enemy No. 1" before his inevitable violent end. But while Dillinger's rampages were restricted to the United States, Mesrine's criminal career took him forth and back across the Atlantic, robbing and killing in France, kidnapping and jailbreaking in Canada. But like Barrow's partner in crime, Bonnie Parker, Mesrine was a self-promoter. While Parker wrote folkloric poems about her adventures, Mesrine published a prison memoir before breaking out of yet another jail. His life sounds like the stuff of movies, and the French have filmed his life at least once before Jean-Francois Richet's two-part epic. On the other hand, Mesrine doesn't sound like the stuff of French crime films, if by those you mean primarily the cool, bleak thrillers of Jean-Pierre Melville. (Le Samourai, Le Circle Rouge, etc.) Mesrine, at least as played here by Vincent Cassel is closer to the charismatic, dynamic mad-dog type exemplified by the original Public Enemy, James Cagney. He's a vicious killer who somehow retains enough likability that you find yourself rooting for him despite his atrocities.

Richet (whose previous film was the Assault on Precinct 13 remake)puts us on Mesrine's side early. After a credits sequence that anticipates the criminal's demise, the story begins in Algeria, where Jacques is a soldier involved in the interrogation of anti-colonial rebels. Ordered to shoot a prisoner's wife in order to make the man talk, Jacques can't bring himself to do it and shoots the prisoner instead. Soon enough he's out of the army and living with his parents. They set up a job for him but he finds street life more appealing. Disgusted with his weak-seeming dad (the scenes between them reminded me of Rebel Without a Cause) Mesrine finds an alternate father-figure in Guido (Gerard [the Hutt] Depardieu), a gangster with ties to the OAS, a paramilitary goon squad of Algeria veterans. He becomes a thug while retaining some minimal code of honor. He has a fling with a hooker, and when her pimp disfigures her out of jealousy, Jacques and Guido beat him, stab him and bury him alive.

Mesrine (Vincent Cassel, left) meets his mountainous mentor (Depardieu, right) and makes time with another man's whore (Florence Thomassin) early in his crowded criminal career.

Eventually, Mesrine becomes too hot for anyone to handle, becoming a freelance robber with his new girlfriend Jeanne Schneider (Cecile de France) -- the Bonnie to his Clyde. He flees to Canada on Guido's advice, and luckily misses being killed with his mentor. On a construction job he hooks up with a Quebecois separatist and gets criminal ideas again. Reunited with Jeanne, they hire out as caretakers to a wealthy wheelchair-bound employer, and when he fires them for arguing with a gardener, they kidnap him. Not exactly being master criminals, they can't stop him from escaping and are soon on the run. Their flight climaxes in an utterly gratuitous car chase through Monument Valley in the USA, the very landscape of western movie mythology.

Unlike many a movie gangster's rise-and-fall arc, Mesrine has many highs and lows.

Mesrine enjoys celebrity as a gabby prisoner, but finds prison a living hell. He endures two months in complete isolation, naked on a bare floor until a vicious hosing down initiates him into the general prison population. His Quebec buddy endures the same, and together they plan to get out. Thanks to some smuggled clippers and some timely distractions, they cut their way through two fences and make for the woods. Once free, in an ultimate act of audacity they gather up weapons to attack the hated prison. After an incredible firefight they fail to liberate any of their new friends and are shot up themselves, but still manage to escape the battle scene. Mesrine now wants to break Jeanne out of her prison, but she tells him over the telephone to let her serve her time and leave her alone. L'Instinct de Mort closes with an epilogue detailing Jeanne's future while leaving Jacques's for the sequel, L'Ennemi Public No. 1.

Three years after their initial release, Richet's Mesrine films invite comparison with a more recent French epic about a notorious globetrotting criminal, Oliver Assayas's Carlos. Mesrine doesn't have as strong a sense of its period as Carlos, though it is stylishly made. While Jacques Mesrine arguably flirted with terrorism in his association with questionable political causes, Richet's film is pretty much apolitical. It isn't interested (yet) in Mesrine's self-justifications or the cultivation of his self-image, and it isn't intended as a deconstruction of its protagonist Instead, its a classical criminal story of the sort seen more often in the U.S. or Japan of a meteoric career flaming brightly toward a certain crash -- the sort of movie that gets accused of glorifying criminals because it can't really help itself. It's really all about momentum; Mesrine (that is, the extremely charismatic and mightily mustachioed Cassel) keeps us interested by the way he just keeps going. It's up to Richet to set the pace and he does so with slick efficiency, mixing moments of tension (including the opening credits) with surges of action culminating in the spectacular prison attack. The Mesrine movies don't have the Scorsesean ambitions of Carlos, but Killer Instinct, at least, is constantly and memorably entertaining. If the first film has no other ambition than to make you want to see the second, most viewers will probably consider it a success.

You might get a jolt out of this preview for "the French Scarface" as uploaded to YouTube by VisoTrailers.


Jack L said...

Excellent review and great blog, I'm following!

I loved this film, it has gradually become one of my all time favourites, Cassel is so amazing in it, I consider it his finest performance to date, and the supporting cast, Depardieu in this one and Almaric in the second is wonderful!
I look forward to your review of the second part.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, Jack, and welcome aboard. That's an icon I can definitely respect. I haven't seen Cassel better anywhere either. Funny thing is that IFC advertised Amalric in Killer Instinct, where he didn't appear. I hope to get to Public Enemy No. 1 before the month is out.