Jacques Mesrine is not a very nice man. He is aggressive, murderous, and determined, which, in turn, makes him one of the most interesting figures in history. One of the most infamous criminals in France, the biopic focusing on his escapades was so epic and badass that they had no choice but split them into two films – kind of like Kill Bill, and just as good (if not better). Gritty, suppurating, and uncompromising, coupled with a phenomenal performance from Vincent Cassel, Killer Instinct is a movie not to be ignored.
I’ve aspired to see these movies for some time now. From what I had previously read, many reviewers seem to make a terrible and erroneous comparison with Scarface. The truth is that Killer Instinct is far more callous and realistic than the Al Pacino snowfest that glorified those boring coke heads. If comparisons be made, the film has more in common with titles like Chopper, The Postcard Bandit, Prison Break, or Goodfellas – with a metric fuck ton of violence alongside the very strong cultural essence of France as well.
Mesrine Part One: Killer Instinct tracks the first part of the man’s life in organized crime. Beginning in his involvement in the Algerian War with the French Army, the story tells of his early frustrations at returning home, and no wanting to be entangled in a "regular, respectable life". He becomes involved in an organization run by the intimidating Guido (Gérard Depardieu) – almost like a French version of Don Corleone.
The script follows Mesrine as he internally battles between his desire for a life of crime, and the need to live a legit life for his wife and children. Proving too much of a turmoil for his wife, Sofia (Elena Anaya), she abandons him and their kids as he spirals further into violence and criminal activities. In a gangland where rivals have seemingly gotten along to keep the peace among their less-than-legal endeavors, Mesrine turns on other gangsters, turning him into a target. Regardless of this, Mesrine is such a complete badass that he just doesn’t care, wandering the streets with his children, continually being shot and being shot at.
Uniting with new mistress Jeanne Schneider (Cécile De France), the pair becomes the French equivalent of Bonnie and Clyde – exiling themselves to Quebec, away from the vengeful motives of the gangsters he turned against. Combined with numerous moments of incarceration – along with torturous moments in isolation, and a stunning prison break that is followed by a Mesrine-led almost-guerilla attack on the same prison (an astoundingly badass scene that surely should be iconic by now); the story is one that just needs to be seen to be believed.
And believed it should be, for Mesrine Part One is moderately accurate to the history of the true man himself. There are, however, a few tweaks and adjustments (some name changes as one example) that seem to have been made to ensure the story flows well on screen. In the face of this, the most amazing thing about Mesrine Part One is that omits a lot from the real gangster’s life – if all of his exploits were filmed, there would have had to have been ten movies – he was that much of a boss.
It is in this regard that Killer Instinct reminds me a lot of Chopper, the Australian biopic of prominent criminal Mark "Chopper" Read played by Eric Bana. There are a number of remarkable similarities between the films, but perhaps the most poignant is that both focus only on specific events in each dude’s criminal life. Both Mesrine and Chopper share a feeling of the movies been extended snapshots of significant moments in their violent histories, making for compelling viewing, but also making you muse how much more there is to real man in the historic context. Additionally the violence is harsh and real – and only "gorified" with blood and bloodspatter where necessary. So, the gore hounds out there, don’t despair, there are a handful "tasty" moments in here.
This "condensed" writing approach, in the case of Mesrine Part One, comes off to the advantage of the film. The plot is exceptionally solid, and zones in on specific moments that are crucial to the evolution of the gangster and his later actions. Everything is there for a reason – either as elucidation for what will eventually follow, or as snapshots to compare against his later actions. A sobering example is where he and Guido take out a rival gangster (pimp, actually) for severely beating one of his whores. Yet later in the movie, Mesrine reacts against his wife, in a severely violent fashion, complete with him putting his gun in her mouth in full view of his children, and friends. It’s not a movie with a message, but to be more precise a document that highlights the vast range of incidents and reactions that made the man who he is.
However while the plot is significantly solid and challenging, it is in the performances where this movie wins big time. Vincent Cassel is quite literally like a master of disguise in this movie – mirroring Mesrine’s unquestionable alias/nickname of "The Man of a Hundred Faces". Movie fans will remember him as the mastermind cat burglar François Toulour from Ocean’s Twelve – but I guarantee you that you will NOT recognize him in this film!
The costuming and make-up teams did an absolute stellar job of giving him a Mesrine appearance, while also complementing the age factor as the story progresses. His performance is especially fearsome, immersing himself so far into the role that Cassel disappears from the screen and becomes the man in question. It’s a phenomenal transition to watch, and quite the highlight of the movie.
Gérard Depardieu also portrays gang lord Guido in the movie, in a role that may be surprising to many who have followed this man’s work before. Like Cassel, he disappears into the role completely, and you forget you’re watching Depardieu on screen. This, in and of itself, is an extraordinary achievement – because who can forget their watching Depardieu with that huge fucking nose on that potato head of his? But in this case, he literally disappears – and becomes Guido.
Cécile De France is stunningly remarkable as Jeanne Schneider, who comes from out of nowhere to become Mesrine’s accomplice. Like a classic starlet, she demands your attention on screen and is significantly magnetic. Her first robbery with the main character will kick your ass completely, but as the movie progresses and you see her minor character development, your heart will weep for her as she is torn between what she should do, and what she wants. Some fans will remember her from High Tension, but believe me; you’ll barely recognize De France in this.
Gilles Lellouche likewise, who I admired in the movie Point Blank, likewise does extremely well. To be honest, I didn’t realize it was the same actor until much later in the film.
The performances in conjunction with the costuming and make-up are so well done; it boggles my brain that these movies have not gotten more attention. They should be bloody mandatory viewing, as far as I am concerned.
Being part one of a biopic, the movie takes place over several years – making it more of a piece about periods than a period piece. With this trial before them, the filmmakers have done an exceptional job at attempting to ensure period authenticity – it’s surprising how many quality era vehicles they found for the movie. The settings are dressed magnificently, and the costuming matches well with the typical styles and fashions of the eras depicted.
On the technical side, the cinematography is an objet d’art. For the most part, it’s relatively straight shooting that you’re familiar with, but in key moments during the film, Jean-François Richet uses an artistic approach to shoot specific scenes with major shocks utilizing mirrors from the set – resulting in scenes with pay-offs that will kick you in the guts. Colors and lighting with changes of time and scenery, though it’s subtly done – with the exception of the Canadian solitary confinement sequence which is full of harsh lighting and colorless moments. Richet also employs split screen during certain edits, but it is used sparingly and yet very effectively.
In truth, I am kicking myself for waiting so long to see this movie. Killer Instinct is a killer flick, with punches that will make your emotions bleed. Even if you have any familiarity with the historic figure of Mesrine, you will still find yourself on the edge of your seat during certain sequences. This is an eminent film that should not be missed, and if I were you, I’d stop reading my fucking rambling and get on to watch this movie right now.
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5
Mesrine Part Two review coming next week