Mesrine: Killer Instinct, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (Music Box Films, R)

If you’re in the mood for a stylish gangster flick with lots of action and a super cool, larger-than-life anti-hero at the center, then Jean-Francois Richet’s epic about the superstar French criminal Jacques Mesrine should be right up your alley.

Although Richet’s opus is being marketed as two separate films (each is about two hours long, so this choice is understandable), they are really two halves of one film. The best plan is to see them both, in order—Killer Instinct then Public Enemy.
Jacques Mesrine led the kind of life you just can’t make up. After a middle-class childhood in a Parisian suburb and military service during the Algerian war, he began a life of crime. His criminal career, punctuated by stints of ordinary employment, would span 20 years and include kidnappings, bank robberies on three continents and some 40-plus murders. Mesrine also escaped from prison four times, became Public Enemy #1 in both Canada and France, published two books and became an expert in manipulating the press. All of this, to feed the public hunger for outlaw heroes as well as his own need for self-aggrandizement. To hear Mesrine tell it, he wasn’t a violent sadistic criminal but a left-wing revolutionary fighting an unjust system—claims that resonated strongly in the France of the 1960s and 1970s. Besides, everyone loves a good show and many of us harbor a suspicion of authority figures, both qualities that feed characters like Mesrine.
Mesrine (both parts) is a highly episodic film that doesn’t spend much time connecting various adventures or establishing the context in which they take place. For a French audience this approach makes sense, because Richet could reasonably assume that they would already be familiar with the events and individuals portrayed in the film. In addition, by choosing not to construct a conventional narrative, Richet freed himself to concentrate on style, which is the film’s strongest point, and to build up Mesrine as an almost mythical character.
For an American audience, the experience of Mesrine may be one of frustration and confusion. With many gaps in information, an audience unfamiliar with the infamous criminal would be left asking basic questions—like who are these people, and why am I watching them? Despite the regular appearance of chyrons giving the year and location, Mesrine can easily degenerate into a blur of guns, girls and prison breaks. The best remedy for this is prevention: read up a bit on the central character (Google his name, OK?) before you see the films. Possession of some basic background information will free you to enjoy the films and not worry about what you might be missing.
It’s worth the effort, because among its many pleasures Mesrine offers a charismatic leading performance by Vincent Cassel, fine supporting performances by, among others, Gerard Depardieu, Elena Anaya, Mathieu Amalric, and Ludivine Sagnier. It also boasts stunning location cinematography by Robert Gantz. Plus, there’s also a lot of fun to be had spotting the many references to other gangster flicks that Richet has planted throughout his film. Mesrine is an homage to the genre as well as the story of one notable gangster.
Richet’s interest lies more in the shiny surface of his tale than in digging into his character’s psyches. At the end of four hours, we still don’t know much about Jacques Mesrine the man or any of the other characters in his story. This was clearly the director’s intent, and he’s made an effective film within those boundaries. But I point this out because those who prefer psychological depth in their films should probably just seek their fortunes elsewhere. | Sarah Boslaugh

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