Mesrine: Killer Instinct

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.”

Laura's Review: 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.

Robin's Review: C+

The documentary begins with a magician performing slight of hand card tricks for his audience, informing us that what we see is all a distortion of reality. This is a metaphor for what documentary filmmaker Robert Kenner (“Food, Inc. (2008)” turns into an expose of the wheeling and dealing of massive corporations whose goal is to deceive the public to make money – lots of money. These well-heeled businesses hire teams of “experts” to turn negatives, like nicotine is addictive, to positives: it is non-addictive and harmless (this statement was made before a congressional committee in 1994 by a representative of Big Tobacco). Kenner brings a righteous intensity to “Merchants of Doubt” in much the way he did with his Oscar-nominated “Food, Inc.” Here, though, he does not tackle one corporate entity but several – oil, coal, tobacco, flame retardant material makers. As such, the edge of the film is blunted by trying to expose too many corporate foibles. It is all very interesting, but does not tell me much that I did not know. There is one facet of the film that I did not know, though: the reason we have possibly carcinogenic flame retardant material in all of our furniture is because the tobacco industry did not want to produce a self extinguishing cigarette. This strikes home the incredible power of corporations to institute change for their own aggrandizement. I would have preferred that Kenner tighten his focus on one or two evil corporations. As it stands, the scattershot aim tries to take down too many targets. “Merchants of Doubt” does have a lot to say and it should be said, but it should have a tighter focus.