Mesrine: Killer Instinct Review

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The early career (1959-’70) of outlaw Jacques Mesrine (Cassel), covering his military service in Algeria, apprenticeship with a Paris gang-lord (Depardieu), crime-spree partnership with soulmate Jeanne (De France) and escape from a tough Canadian prison.


In France, Jacques Mesrine has the legendary status of John Dillinger or the Kray Brothers. Like other criminal biopic subjects Mark Read (Chopper) and Cass Pennant (Cass), Mesrine took the time, while in jail, to write an autobiography, putting his own side of the story on the record.

Earlier French films and TV shows have covered sections of Mesrine’s career, but this ambitious, full-on biography is a two-part, four-hour epic released Che/Kill Bill-style. It opens in 1979 with an edgy, split-screen sequence in which Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) and a girlfriend (Ludivine Sagnier) are surprised by a mysterious hit squad on the streets of Paris, then flashes back 20 years to find Jacques getting his first taste of murder when ordered to execute an Algerian rebel’s sister — he delivers appropriate ultra-violence, but shows an anarchist streak by not exactly obeying orders.

In scale, this is in a league with the historical gangland epics of Coppola and Scorsese. However, The Godfather and GoodFellas are ensemble pieces, anatomising a corrupt society; this is a throwback to the Cagney-Robinson phase of the gangster film, focusing on a single charismatic, contradictory thug. Mesrine’s life is so dangerous, few stick around long enough to challenge Cassel’s star turn, though heavyweight Gérard Depardieu registers as Mesrine’s mentor and Cecile De France could have carried a film by herself as the only woman peculiar enough to enjoy sharing Mesrine’s spree in two countries.

Even with two movies to play with, director Jean-François Richet (best known for the US remake of Assault On Precinct 13) is on fast-forward. He cuts from Mesrine’s decision to take part in an ill-fated bank heist to his arrival in prison, makes a point of the gangster’s inability to connect with children who are played by different actors every time he (and we) see them and speeds through a variety of crimes. Killer Instinct only slows to make a point when Mesrine is confined in a brutal Canadian jail from which he escapes with a Quebec Liberation Front comrade (Roy Dupuis). This sequence is capped by their return, heavily armed, to attack the institution and foment a mass break-out — with Mesrine almost, but not quite, transforming from cash-grabbing crook to revolutionary.

Instantly gripping, with a powerhouse star performance, it’ll make you want to speed through the weeks to get to part two.