Mesrine - Killer Instinct

Vincent Cassel delivers as the ultraviolent French criminal. Click here for a sneak preview

Mesrine - Killer Instinct is the anticipated first instalment of Jacques Mesrine's two-part biopic. Depending on your predilection for criminal glamour, Mesrine is either a vicious gangster or a folk hero. Following the film's French release in 2008 it was nominated in ten categories in the Cesar Awards, winning in Best Actor at the Lumiere Awards, the Tokyo International Film Festival, and the E'toile D'or.

The film arrives in the UK with something of a reputation as the Gallic Godfather, which is of course nonsense. Mesrine does, however, boast a stellar cast with Vincent Cassel as Mesrine, Gérard Depardieu as gangster Guido and Cécile De France as Jeanne Schneider.

Mesrine (silent ‘r’) remains a controversial figure in France. He was a murderer, bank robber, kidnapper The real Mesrineand wife-beating racist. He was also a stylish dresser, wrote poetry, and is remembered by some as a figure akin to Robin Hood. Perhaps more so in French society, he is remembered for the manner in which he conducted his business as much as for what he actually did. 

His story is remarkable. Heists, prison escapes, an international life of crime filled with women, sharp suits, expensive cars, and casual violence. If you didn’t know Mesrine was a real person, you might gag in disbelief at some of the on-screen antics.

Weeks after escaping from a maximum security Quebec Prison, he and a colleague return to break out fellow prisoners by driving a pick-up truck to the gates, armed with grenades and automatic weapons. It’s so ludicrous that I snorted with incredulity – yet that’s exactly what he did. And like many of his ventures, it was absolutely disastrous.

The film begins at the end, with Mesrine gunned down in a Parisian traffic jam in 1979 (allegedly at the behest of the state). It then rewinds to his time in the French army in Algeria during that country's struggle for independence. Here, Mesrine was allegedly involved in some pretty horrific acts, perhaps inuring him to the violence he would later perpetrate. 

Based on the first part of Mesrine's rather boastful autobiography (in which he casts himself as a crusading, romantic anti-hero), the film’s take is a lot less forgiving. Cassel’s immense charm just about carries the character's brutal excesses, without lapsing into American-style gangster cliché.

Cassel is hypnotically watchable in ways that are hard to explain. His Mesrine, whilst being an arrogant bully, borderline sociopath and generally detestable, remains ridiculously compelling. But even though you can’t help but be impressed by Mesrine, you can never really empathise with him in the way you might a Michael Corleone or a Tony Montana.

Both the film and book allude to Mesrine as having had a conflicted relationship with his father. It is suggested that the young frenchman was upset that his father collaborated with the Germans in the Second World War. Their confrontation is a marked turning point,  and perhaps the catalyst for Mesrine's criminality.

This is as close as the movie gets to providing an excuse or explanation for his subsequent excesses. Throughout the movie the violence, coupled with the breakneck pace, leave the viewer (like Mesrine himself) almost indifferent to his monstrosity.

A grossly rotund Depardieu Gérard Depardieu is a reassuring presence as the ‘daddy’ gangster Guido, sharing a hilarious pivotal scene with Cassel in which he is told off for shooting an unarmed man in the chest - just moments after Mesrine has put a gun into his wife’s mouth (in front of his kids). 'That’s different,'  spits Mesrine. 

It is reported that Cassel walked out on a previous production of the film because Mesrine was portrayed as too sympathetic. He has described how Mesrine, if you strip away the brutal viscera of his life, is actually quite an uninteresting character.

Far from being a criminal mastermind or charismatic charmer, he comes off here as an impulsive spoiled child who isn’t as interesting as he thinks he is. It’s not certain whether director Jean-Francois Richet is emphasising this by refusing to allow us to dwell on Mesrine’s interior life as the action between places, times and events moves with indecent haste.

Whatever the intent, the result is that the viewer is unmoved by the injustices that pepper Mesrine's life, such as a horrific sequence of prison brutality. Be it directorial flourish or happy accident, it’s actually quite nice to have a self-styled epic gangster movie where we aren’t welling up when the noble psychopath takes a slow-motion hit in the chest to a crescendo of heart-swelling strings.

Maybe they’re saving that for part two. If the book is to be believed, we can look forward to seeing the delightful delusional delinquent escape from La Santé, the most secure prison in France, hone his slick media profile, and ludicrously try to cast himself as a socialist revolutionary. I wouldn’t put it past him.

Joe Nawaz

Mesrine: Killer Instinct shows at the Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast. Click here for listings, or here to watch the trailer.