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Mesrine: Killer Instinct: A French gangster on a wild ride

Gerard Depardieu and Vincent Cassel in Mesrine: Part 1 - Killer Instinct.

3 out of 4 stars


Mesrine: Killer Instinct

  • Directed Jean-François Richet
  • Screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Jean-François Richet
  • Starring Vincent Cassel, Cécile de France, Gérard Depardieu, Roy Dupuis and Elena Anaya

The term "public enemy" arose in the 1930s to refer to headline-grabbing gangsters such as Al Capone, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Machine Gun Kelly - all of whom served time, in fictionalized form of course, on the silver screen. So there are powerful true crime and movie associations with the title Public Enemy Number One, the overall English moniker French director Jean-François Richet ( Assault on Precinct 13) gives his entertaining, though somewhat scattershot, two-part biopic on French gangster Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), which careens through 20 years of daring heists, underworld violence, love affairs and jail breaks in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct, the first legend-building part, is based on a memoir Mesrine wrote in prison. Richet tracks our anti-hero from his soldier days in Algeria, through early crimes and his rejection of family for his gangster pals (Gérard Depardieu in a menacing performance as his portly godfather-mentor) to his encounter with a fetching prostitute (Cécile de France) with whom he engages in a Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque spree that forces the lovers to flee the country.

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Their haven, at least temporarily, is Montreal, where Mesrine meets Jean-Paul Mercier (the wonderful Roy Dupuis of Shake Hands With the Devil, The Rocket et al), a Quebec Liberation Front "fundraiser." A plan to kidnap a Quebec billionaire goes awry, sending Mesrine and his lover on the lam, followed by their eventual capture in Texas and return to Montreal to face justice as a media sensation that ups Mesrine's anti-hero rep.

Mesrine's incarceration and brutal treatment in Saint-Vincent-de-Paul penitentiary is, not surprisingly, the only part of the film where we get a break from its anecdotal rhythm. Up until this point, Cassel, the go-to French actor for tough guys and brilliantly cast here, has shown us a swaggering macho man who also manages to sustain a doting husband and father alter ego until his, ahem, his killer instinct can't take it any more. In prison, however, Cassel reveals his character's vulnerability and anguish, but that's soon dispensed with as Mesrine commits to a life of crime by executing a daring jailbreak (one of the film's most exciting sequences).

While Mesrine: Killer Instinct (plus Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, which opens this fall) certainly deserves a place among memorable French gangster films, Richet never delivers a clear theme here, let alone a plot. He seems to be reaching for something akin to a hoodlum's self-imposed code of honour - the hallmark of Jean-Pierre Melville's cool 1950s and 1960s films - when Mesrine brashly returns to the prison with Mercier to break out their buddies, but it's really just another visceral jolt along the way.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct opens in Toronto Friday, and Vancouver and Ottawa Aug. 20.

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