Mesrine: Killer Instinct opens on one of the most admirably up-front disclaimers ever to introduce a fact-based film, stating not merely that some of the events have been dramatized, or that names have been changed, but frankly that no movie can ever account 100% for the entire life of a person. Nevertheless, this first half of the story presents what sums up to a nearly simplified concentration on the proceedings present in most gangster stories. Comparable in some obvious ways to Goodfellas or Public Enemies but on the grander scale and somewhat in the artistically inventive vein of Che, Mesrine moves with blistering liveliness. Like Che, there's little or no exposition or elucidation between scenes or events, but unlike Che this develops a hurried rhythm. But Richet manages to present things in fresh and innovative ways at times. Mesrine's final day is seen first, in a multi-screened wall-to-wall juxtaposition of purposefully surplus and divergent angles. But as the film hearkens back to the beginning and starts to accelerate, it comes to explode with violence of Scarface proportions, a perhaps too bombastic orchestral score, and a virtually streamlined focus on the events we've seen in every gangster biopic.
After having seen this film, I've read a little more about Jacques Mesrine, who described all his robberies and killings as acts liberating him from the state, which may perhaps cause these films to elicit an above-average response for foreign films in the U.S., Killer Instinct finally making its way through flyover country at a peak time when Americans feel knee-jerk reactionary impulses to antagonize the state, impulses that will only dig us an increasingly deeper hole, just as Mesrine's do him.
Vincent Cassel is vigorous, forceful and captivating as Mesrine, personifying the man via decades of bodily and academic transformation, from his days as a fighter in Algeria, to his days of incarceration, to his most despicable impulses, offenses and displays, to instances of emotional and raw intimacy, to his sincere tussles with self-identity. Quite soon, we believe him as scared of nothing and with the capacity for anything. Cassel is in every scene, giving a simultaneously understated and massive performance of contradictory impulses, fierce animality and masculine overdrive. Richet encircles him with remarkable support, too. Gerard Depardieu is superbly boorish as an older gang boss who schools Mesrine in the thieves' code of honor, Gérard Lanvin is unrefined and fervent as a real radical with whom Mesrine establishes a partnership, and Elena Anaya is appealing as demure but highly effective partner in crime and love.
The film has numerous outstanding scenes, such as the one in which Mesrine meets Depardieu, and the two hit it off after threatening to kill one another. Or the one in which three guys take a night-time ride cracking wise, until the atmosphere delicately veers and one recognizes he's about to die. Or, of course, a relentlessly tense and truly audacious jailbreak. Still, the forfeit of making me wait for the second half of the story before I see the big picture is that Richet doesn't convey a consistent theme yet, not to mention a cogent narrative. He often appears to be after a modern kinship with a thug's self-imposed code of principle, the seal of Jean-Pierre Melville's hip 1950s and 1960s films, when the result is essentially a series of gut punches. But that is where its charm lies, as well as in the intermittent flashes of cinematic outlandishness. Enthusiasts of cocksure male renegade icons, car chases, gunfights, explosions and all-purpose carnage will be excited by Richet's magnum opus.
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