REVIEW: Brutal Gangster Murders Story in Mesrine: Killer Instinct

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Luridly handsome and resolutely unsympathetic, as played by Vincent Cassel, the title character in the gangster's greatest hits compilation Mesrine: Killer Instinct is a thug's thug. It would seem he was so in life as well: A notorious criminal in his native France, Jacques Mesrine died with his leather jacket on (as seen in an ambush depicted in the movie's opening scene) after a life of unrepentantly violent, sometimes brashly vigilantic misdeeds.

From that seductive opener -- a long, wordless, split-screen sequence that follows Mesrine and his girlfriend on an ill-fated mission in 1979 -- onward, part one of this two-part epic plays like a biography annotated by Al Capone. (Mesrine's further adventures are dealt with in part two of the saga, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1.) Director Jean-François Richet exults in the finer points of his subject's disreputable resume, one after another, with little but chronology and Cassel's expectorant leer holding them together.

Reeling back 30 years, Richet begins his timeline with Mesrine's stint as a soldier in Algeria. It's a brief but chaotic, brutal interrogation scene that perhaps signals the definitive loss of Mesrine's innocence; it ends with him executing a prisoner as his wife screams in anguish. Back in Paris after his service, the shiftless veteran is drawn into a crime ring with little more than a shrug. Soldier or gangster -- it's all thug work, seems to be the idea; one gets you respect, the other money. Mesrine works with a three-man crew headed by a very un-guido-looking Guido (Gerard Depardieu). Amber-tinted shades seem permanently draped across the bridge of that indecent nose, and Depardieu's hair is greased back along the contours of his enormous, Promethean head. The general effect is less menacing than faintly ridiculous, although his untroubled way with lethal weapons soon takes care of that.

The men rob banks and settle scores, then weekend in Spain to unwind. Mesrine points out that if he brings a gun to the party he plans on using it, and the film's deployment of its female characters is similarly assured: If Mesrine meets a woman in one scene you can be sure he will either screw, marry, or shoot up a casino with her in the next. You can practically hear the timebomb clock start ticking when a young beauty with a double-decker smile named Sofia (Elena Anaya) sets eyes on Mesrine in a Spanish bar; her virginity has exactly one scene left to live.

Uninterested in narrative pacing or character development, Richet sets up a more primal relationship with the viewer, a punishment/reward system that starts to feel -- in the absence of anything like a dramatic purpose to hold on to -- like a form of abuse. A vicious murder scene, for instance, which finds Mesrine butterflying a man with a knife at excruciating length, is directly followed by a scene of him dancing with Sofia, and the apparent newlyweds covering each other with kisses. Is this knowing wit? Blunt-force irony?

Mostly it's frustrating; the film is an episodic jumble that runs hot and cold not in some implied thematic synchronicity with its subject's character but as part of a misguided approach that assumes the audience will find whatever Mesrine does, in whatever order and with whatever emphasis, inherently fascinating. Certainly the director does, at least when it involves an extremity like Mesrine's forcing a gun into his wife's mouth, or having a bullet fished out of his flesh. Mesrine doesn't flinch and Richet won't either -- he wants to make sure you get a good, long look. But at what? Distrust sets in, and you might find yourself hardening against both Mesrine and the director; neither one's instincts seem that sound.

Some of the scenes contain an artful build-up to the explosive violence, some dispense with it without much ceremony; it all starts to feel the same. There's something about the traditional gangster obsession with respect thrown in there -- the law of the lawless -- but as a theme, it's glancing and inconsistent at best. Mesrine settles down with Sofia, goes to prison, vows to go straight and breaks the vow within a couple of scenes. Then he takes up with an Anouk Aimee knock-off (Cecile de France) and heads to the gilded shores (!) of Quebec.

At the height of the province's separatist pique in the late 1960's, Quebec's radical underground gave Mesrine something to work with. After getting busted for kidnapping a billionaire he gets a taste of Canada's apparently constitution-unfriendly prison system. The torture scenes are harrowing and not completely pointless, and after an hour or more of hard-ass, hard-core brutality the mystery of Mesrine's method only deepens when the granddaddy of all French Canadian epithets -- the untranslatable but trust me, it's bad tabernac -- is repeatedly translated as "jeez."

The sustained passage dealing with Mesrine's incarceration and eventual prison-break is the highlight of an otherwise well-made but frivolous film. It at least offers a logical cause and effect to cling to amid an avalanche of random events. One can glean from the full title, Mesrine: Killer Instinct, all you will really come to know at the end of its 113 minutes: This was a bad, bad man. Except I left Part One unsure that he was a man at all.

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