Monday, August 23, 2010

Mesrine Part 1: Killer Instinct

Jacques Mesrine was white and bourgeoisie, but he wanted to be the French Iceberg Slim. A veteran of Algeria, Mesrine became France and Canada’s “Public Enemy #1,” eventually getting his wish, dying in a hail of bullets. Before the inevitable, he glamorized his exploits in two memoirs/novels, making him something of a cult hero to the French-speaking counter-culture. As a result, he became a very PR-conscious public enemy, who would be delighted to know his story has now been adapted in Jean-François Richet’s two-film bio-epic, the first of which, Mesrine: Killer Instinct (trailer here) opens Friday in New York, with part two to follow a week later.

In Algeria, Mesrine killed and tortured without a second thought. Returning to France, he is incapable of following in his timid father’s footsteps of working middleclass respectability. Of course, he has certain talents to offer, which the “establishment” gangster Guido recognizes. While Mesrine takes to racketeering like a fish to water, his wild streak is an obvious liability. He also seems to have issues with women. While his conquests are many, he also seems primed for some rather ugly misogynistic violence.

Despite his unruliness, Mesrine eventually finds himself married with children. When he even gets a straight job after an early prison stretch, it appears Mesrine might be ready to settle down. Unfortunately, when he is laid off during an economic downturn, Mesrine soon returns to Guido’s organization.

Ironically, as the violence of Mesrine’s criminal endeavors escalates, his press becomes increasingly favorable. He became the gentleman bandit, with a strict code of conduct and New Left street cred. When things get too hot for Mesrine in France, he takes a sojourn to Quebec, falling in with French nationalists, further refining his revolutionary persona.

Killer Instinct is a decent gangster movie on its own, but it is really meant to establish the characters and story that continues in Public Enemy No. 1, the second film (that confusingly has the number one in the title). Indeed, Instinct handles the heavy-lifting of character development, setting up the slam-bang action sequences of Enemy. Yet, Richet presents a compellingly unvarnished portrait of Mesrine in the first film, never ameliorating his abusive behavior.

The bulked-up Vincent Cassel is like a French old school De Niro as Mesrine, vicious yet undeniably charismatic. Gérard Depardieu also adds plenty of color as the Jabba the Hutt-like Guido. Unfortunately, Mesrine’s women (even his Spanish wife) are not well delineated either in the script or in the various supporting performances, problematically seeming to exist only as plot devices. Still, Instinct is not bereft of humanity, thanks to Michel Duchaussoy’s touching turn as Mesrine’s father.

After a tour-de-force opening, Richet allows Instinct to lag somewhat in the middle. This is definitely not a problem with the next installment opening September 3rd. Essentially, Instinct sets up the pins and Enemy knocks them down. Altogether, it is an ambitious, shrewdly executed crime drama worth the investment of two trips to the theater. Instinct opens Friday (8/27) at the Angelika, AMC Lincoln Square, and Empire 25 Theaters.