Mesrine: Killer Instinct (2008) – Movie Review

A macho good time. The rebel without a cause finds out that wartime training with guns has its advantages.

“Mesrine: Killer Instinct” is the first of a two part series about the iconic career criminal Jacques Mesrine, the “John Dillinger” of French criminals. Dillinger was a depression-era criminal who captured the hearts of many Americans with his imaginative and daring prison escapes and his occasional “Robin Hood” bravado of redistributing wealth.

The wealth redistribution was a hit because most Americans blamed the overfed bankers for causing the recession and for many American workers losing their homes and being thrown into poverty. Not much different from today, actually.

Michael Mann’s and Johnny Depp’s film “Public Enemies” (2009) is an adaptation of Bryan Burrough’s book “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-43.” The film is not a bad retelling of the story of Dillinger’s criminal life and death. Seeing it in conjunction with the Mesrine duo would be interesting.

More precisely, the film depicts Mesrine as part Dillinger and part Jesse James. James was the famous American gunslinger from the Wild West of post Civil War Kansas.

James distinctive personality trait is that he was tormented, and taught, by his years fighting for the South in the civil war, the most deadly and brutal of all wars involving Americans. His legend describes him as being a tragic figure living out posttraumatic stress syndrome by robbing banks.

“Killer Instinct” purports to describe how Mesrine came to be the hardened criminal he was. Part 2 of the series, “Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1,” tells the story of the last half of his life when he was actively engaged in violent crime and was contently on the run from the law. Like Jesse James, Mesrine claims he was taught violence by his experiences in the brutal French suppression of Algerians in their war of independence.

There are other films that address the national and personal scars left by this terrible period which, among other incidents, including the drowning of some 200 protesters in Paris in 1961.

The direction of this film by Jean-François Richet is excellent, as is the production overall. The lead role is played by Vincent Cassel who won the César for Best Actor for this film as well as for his performance in the second part. He has two additional Cesar nominations to his credit.

He has succeeded in combining the necessary bravado of the violent criminal with a soft underbelly of vulnerability traced to Mesrine’s dysfunctional relationship with his father. Throughout the film, Cassel is able to combine Mesrine’s acts of violence, and even heroism, with his subliminal dread of impending doom and a pervasive lack of self worth.

Cécile De France plays Jeanne Schneider, the girlfriend Mesrine took up with in 1966 and shared with whom he shared his flight across three continents and some of his initial, spectacular, publicity.

De France is great in this film although the Mesrine character gets most of the screen time. She claims four Cesar nominations including three wins for Quand j’étais chanteur (2006) and Les poupées russes (2005) and L’auberge espagnole (2002).

This review would not be complete without mention of French New Wave icon Gérard Depardieu who plays the aging mobster who takes a liking to the young and reckless Mesrine. Depardieu is an iconic actor, especially in the realm of the flawed hero whose life is filled with contradictions.

He claims some fifteen Cesar nominations including two wins and is fantastic in this film. His performance of the wizened mobster who has lived a life entirely too hard was aided, no doubt, by Depardieu’s self-described consumption of between two and six bottles of wine a day. Six bottles if under stress, two when things are normal. He should find it easy to play the aging mobster and who considers himself lucky to be alive.

Jacques and Jean-Paul act much like Depardieu’s character in “Going Places” the film that made him famous in 1974. Unfortunately, their performances seemed strained and unconvincing. It is as if someone told them to behave like Depardieu and they did not like it.

Both of the Mesrine films, parts one and two, are great action flicks although they stray into serious escapist territory. A-number one “guy stuff” with lots of macho action. Cassel plays a good gangster but he is not as good as Pacino in “Scarface” or Cagney in “Public Enemy.” He is able to project the correct image of the flawed and trapped person who is a criminal because he has few real alternatives.

The undercurrents of the Algerian rebellion and the Algerian massacre in Paris add strength to the film as they help place Mesrine firmly in the camp of the traumatized perpetrator. The character is all the more scary when we understand that he has good reason to be insane.

Visit the movie database for more information.

Directed by: Jean-François Richet
Written by: Jacques Mesrine (book), Abdel Raouf Dafri (scenario)
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Roy Dupuis and Cécile De France
Release: August 27, 2010
MPAA: Rated R for strong brutal violence, some sexual content and language
Runtime: 113 minutes
Country: France / Canada / Italy
Language: French / English / Arabic
Color: Color