The 1960s and ‘70s was the time of the rise and fall of Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), the man who rose to the rank of France’s Public Enemy No, 1 for his string of daring bank robberies, murders and spectacular prison escapes. Adapting the book by the master criminal, director Jean-Francoise Richet brings us part one, the violent rise of “Mesrine: Killer Instinct.”
The filmmakers smartly took this crime epic and made “Mesrine” as a two-part serial, with “Killer Instinct” chronicling his early adult life as, first, a French officer in Algiers during the revolt to throw off the French yoke of colonialism. He returned to France a changed man, hardened by his experience and ready to make some easy money. His friend, Paul (Gilles Lellouce), introduces Jacques to Guido (Gerard Depardieu), a crime boss who offers Mesrine “off the books” jobs: breaking and entering and robbery.
Mesrine takes to his new life like a duck to water and soon expands his criminal repertoire, tempting fate and the law. There is time for romance between heists, though, and Jacques, on vacation with Paul, falls for Spanish beauty, Sophia (Elena Anaya), who gets Mesrine back on the straight and narrow after he spends a stint in prison. The legit life is not for Jacques, however, and he soon falls back into his bad ways, losing Sophia in the process. He later meets his femme opposite, Jeanne Schneider (Cecile de France), a raven haired babe with the same killer instinct. The two team up and begin a crime spree that spans continents.
Acting is solid across the board, with Cassel wearing his character like a custom fit suit. Cecile De France is the perfect match for Jacques as Jeanne, The two characters become an audacious crime team, pulling off bank heists and evading the long arm of the law. Gerard Depardieu, as always, is a pleasure to watch as the tough crime boss, Guido. Elena Anaya is sympathetic as Sophia and has a harrowing scene when Mesrine chooses a life of crime over her. The rest of the cast works well with their characters.
Director Richet and his behind the camera team do well in creating the period feel of the film. Robert Gantz’s moody lensing helps capture the grittiness of the criminal underworld that is Mesrine’s. Other production techs are on the same solid ground.
“Mesrine: Killer Instinct” is a densely packed crime drama that, with a run time of 113 minutes, is almost too much to absorb in one sitting. I’m glad the filmmakers split up the epic into two parts. If “Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1” follows suit, the two films viewed together would create a brain overload. I give part one an A-.
Beginning with his service in Algeria for the French military in 1959, where he was discharged after refusing to shoot a suspect's younger sister as part of an interrogation, the story of French Public Enemy No. 1 Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel, "Ocean's Thirteen") features a career best performance from Cassel in an extremely dense Part 1, adapted by "A Prophet" screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri from Mesrine's autobiographical book 'Killer Instinct.' And yet for all the action packed into Part 1, there is still plenty that's been left out - wives and countries, for example.
Director Jean-François Richet (2005's "Assault on Precinct 13") uses such timeworn devices as giving us a taste of the end (Part II) at the beginning and period tropes like split screens and his pacing can be erratic. But he and his screenwriter have chosen events which illustrate Mesrine's psychology, a man who could be both paternal and brutal, who would avenge a prostitute but threaten his wife, who could pull off a daring prison escape in broad daylight surrounded by guards but get caught in a kidnapping scheme by being overly cocky and sloppy. Mesrine was a true enigma, the type of criminal whose exploits become legendary. He holds down a job after a stint in prison, attempting to create a normal life for his new Spanish wife Sofia (Elena Anaya, "Van Helsing," "Cairo Time") and their daughter, but when he's laid off, he not only falls right back in with Paul (Gilles Lellouche, "Tell No One," "Paris") and crime boss Guido (Gérard Depardieu) but holds a gun in Sofia's mouth when she objects.
The film can be very violent, especially when Mesrine gives physical voice to his racist feelings about Arabs. He assaults two men who dare to order a drink in 'his' bar so aggressively, he leaves one a cripple. When his favorite whore, Sarah (Florence Thomassin, "Tell No One"), is assaulted by her pimp Ahmed, even Guido flinches as he witnesses Mesrine's revenge. On the flip side, Richet spends considerable time documenting the abusive treatment Mesrine suffered in solitary at Evreux Prison. He also uses humor to flesh out Mesrine's considerable capabilities. In a scene extremely reminiscent of Vito Corleone's first robbery of an oriental rug with Paulie in "Godfather II," Mesrine accompanies Paul to rob the home of a wealthy elderly couple. Caught in the act by the homeowners return, Mesrine plays detective, turns tables, and walks away with the loot. Cassel is dazzling in his ability to switch gears from suave crook to homicidal maniac.
Also terrific is Cécile De France ("Haute Tension") as Jeanne Schneider, Mesrine's post-Sofia lover and partner in crime. Looking like Lorraine Bracco in "Goodfellas" crossed with Clyde's Bonnie, De France is one tough cookie. It is of note that the first crime we see them commit is the armed robbery of a casino because it is Mesrine's increasing recklessness in betting against the odds which eventually forces Jeanne to end their relationship.
The production is ambitious, spanning decades and continents (from Algeria to France and Spain to Quebec and Nevada). Production design/art direction is impressive as are all technical elements. Despite some bumpy pacing, individual sequences are nicely edited (Mesrine walks out of Sarah's bedroom and into his parents' home, the buildup of suspense during the prison break).
"Mesrine: Killer Instinct" may not be flawless, but it is a hugely engrossing portrait of an audacious criminal and the various circles that supported him. Cassel's a knockout and De France really raises her game.