MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT is part 1 of a 2 part French true-ish crime saga about Jacques Mesrine, international terror, mustachioed robber of banks and casinos, killer of forest rangers, escaper of prisons, etc. One of these lovable maniacs who make the world worse and the movies better. This review is just of the first part. Both parts have been available as an import for a while but I waited for the official American release, so I gotta wait another month for part 2.
Vincent Cassel (EASTERN PROMISES) plays Mesrine as a fun-loving, woman-enjoying dude, a charmer who wins you over when he’s caught robbing a house and without missing a beat just pretends to be a police officer responding to the robbery. In real life nobody likes some asshole that lies to the elderly and steals their shit, but through the filter of a movie we admire his cleverness. And hey, he could’ve just pistol whipped them and gotten similar results. He made a better choice. But he’s not a good man.
The roots of his psychosis might lie in the French-Algerian war, where he was made to do some horrible things. His parents seem nice and his dad gets him a legit job at a lace factory after the war, but he doesn’t want to work for Germans and is tempted away by an old buddy’s higher-paying work in the robbery industry.
Cassel is warm and charismatic, and the movie sneakily lures us in by pretending he has a code of honor. In the opening war scene he’s supposed to kill a woman but gets out of it by killing her husband instead. During peace time he’s a player, hitting on women in multiple countries and languages. He has a Spanish girlfriend, a prostitute girlfriend. He angrily refuses an opportunity to become his lady’s pimp, then savagely avenges the pimp who beats her up. During that whole affair he shows some racism against Arabs, but you figure well, he’s going after this Arab pimp. Maybe he wouldn’t normally say that, maybe he’s just using what he can to fuck with the guy. Maybe?
My favorite scene of sympathetic brutality is when some guys are being rude to a lady bartender, so Mesrine intervenes. At first he pretends to “be nice” like in ROAD HOUSE, gets them drinks on the house to cool things off. But then he breaks a glass in one guy’s face and shoots the other guy in both knees. Both knees. Just one knee would be way overdoing it, he goes for two. It’s beautiful. Be polite to your servers, people, and tip well.
But I’m not sure Mesrine woulda done that if the bartender was a dude. He protects the ladies. Or so it seems. Then there’s a real gut-punch of a scene where his wife is very understandably asking him not to get back into crime after a period of going straight. But he’s been laid off from his straight job and sees no other choice. He could try to charm her into going along with the plan, instead he beats her up and puts a gun in her mouth. His partner and his gangster boss Guido (Gerard Depardieu) are standing there awkwardly waiting for him to finish so they can leave, not really knowing what to do in a situation like that.
If they wanted to make a bullshit American cut for us to all be outraged by they could’ve cut that scene out and it would almost seem like you were supposed to like this guy. With that scene it really fucks with you because you want to like him, but jesus.
I gotta tell you, the wife made the right decision by leaving him. I do not think she made the right decision by leaving him with their three kids, though. That does not seem like the most responsible guy to leave those kids with, in my opinion. Luckily he pawns them off on the grandparents, but there could be a part 1.5 about all the hilarious things that happened when he had to, like, change diapers and read bed time stories and stuff.
In the tradition of many legendary criminal true stories he tries to position himself as some kind of anti-establishment guy or an activist, saying “Long live a free Quebec!” to news cameras when he gets arrested. But he’s obviously full of shit, at least as depicted in the movie. At no time does he seem to think about or care about politics. It’s just a gimmick.
The way the story is structured really worked for me. Despite being a 2- parter they gotta cut out lots of time, and they’re pretty bold about skipping over big chunks of it. I love that one scene is him being told about a robbery plan, the next scene is him in prison, the one after that is him out of prison trying to get a job. Our heads fill in what’s between the edits.
But as it gets toward the end it starts zeroing in on a time period, there is a long stretch of him in prison and how he gets mentally and physically broken and has to make a comeback. By this time you’re with him, you’re along for the ride and you have a little bit of cinematic Stockholm syndrome, almost rooting for him even though as a human being you definitely shouldn’t be.
There are plenty of good supporting characters. I gotta admit, I reacted to Depardieu the way some people do to Seagal these days, at first I was convinced he was wearing monster makeup. But I guess they just shot him to take advantage of the interesting qualities of his features, let’s say. I also wouldn’t have recognized Cecil De France, but just ’cause I only know her from HIGH TENSION. I don’t know what it is about her in this one but I really bought her as a crazy bitch that would get off on being the Bonnie to his Clyde, and enjoy the headlines making that comparison.
Of course the real show is Cassel, using all his charms to sell you on this flamboyant maniac. He’s like a Scarface type mixed with all the stereotypes about Frenchmen being romantic and what not. I’m not sure the real Mesrine was this smooth – Cassel treats the use of mustaches and cigarettes like a high art. I like how he’s always driving or riding around in little European convertibles, always with the top down. I think there’s only two scenes where he’s in a car with a roof on it: when he’s terrorizing a pimp, and when he has a job as a billionaire’s driver. It shows why even though he should’ve appreciated that as a sweet job he felt like he was a slave and needed to revolt. Have the wind blowing through his mustache hair again.
One great moment of both acting and filmatism involves an emotional phone call between Cassel and De France, and after they hang up there’s a split screen holding on closeups of both of their faces as they think about what’s just happened.
But if you’re looking for badass there’s plenty of that too. The last chunk of the movie pays off everything leading up to it with two very tense sequences that had my heart beating fast. Without going into too many specifics let’s say that it involves a large building that Mesrine would like to leave, and beforehand he promises that he will come back, and then he boldly stays true to that promise. Early in the movie he yelled at his poor dad for alleged lack of balls. I don’t feel the dad deserves that type of ridicule, but in case there’s any question this turn of events makes it clear that the son does not have any deficiencies in the ball area. He actually has an unsafe amount of balls.
A nod of respect to supporting badass Roy Dupuis as Jean-Paul Mercier, who Mesrine meets doing construction work in Canada and they become best buds. He has an aura of being some kind of revolutionary, but as far as we see is just a really cool thug like Mesrine.
Maybe it’s just the two-parter thing and the way we see foreign films in the States, but this feels like a prestige picture, more art movie than exploitation. Still it made me notice two things that come up alot in the action and crime movies. One is when Mesrine is completely fucked because he’s made open war on all the crime lords and police, everybody wants to kill or imprison him, and Guido tells him to (at least in the English subtitled version) go out of the country “until this blows over.” That gave me a chuckle because how the fuck is this gonna “blow over”? I’m pretty sure there’s no cooling period on what he’s done here. If he comes back I don’t think they’ll all sit down together and laugh about it, will they?
The other thing has to do with taking the bullets out. I mentioned this recently in the GREEN HORNET review because that movie has a little tweak on how many action movies have somebody having to have crude bullet-removal surgery in a kitchen. Of course in Mesrine’s line of work it’s not a cliche, it’s just a fact of life. But what I noticed is after the bullet comes out in this one it gets dropped in a glass of booze (or water?) with a dramatic ‘clink.’ Usually it’s onto a metal tray I think, but the glass of liquid is also common. It seems like they plan to keep the bullet for a collection or something. Maybe for the kitchen medical files? Or maybe they just have worked hard and the noise that the dropping bullet makes is the pay off, the celebration of success.
I mean maybe they do that, I don’t know. I’ve never done kitchen surgery. If anybody has done it, what did you do with the slug? Did you just throw it in the kitchen trash, or did you put it on a metal tray for later? Probly shouldn’t put it in the recycling.
The director of KILLER INSTINCT is Jean-Francois Richet, whose last movie was the remake of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Wait a minute, what? That’s hard to believe. Not a terrible movie, but not one I remember anything about other than it wasn’t fucking ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. I wouldn’t’ve thought the director would go on to make anything this good.
I don’ t know if I should call this “great,” because I don’t think it has any great new insights into the criminal mind or what makes this particular guy more interesting than any of the other guys that have been made into movies like this. And also because I haven’t seen part 2, which could bring everything home or could land with a thud (or a ‘clink’ in a glass of liquid), I got no idea. But I found KILLER INSTINCT to be completely absorbing and fascinating. So fuck it, it’s pretty great. End of part 1.
I think it’s interesting that there’s starting to be sort of a genre of the epic biopic. We got this two-parter, we’ve got a three-parter of CARLOS that’s supposed to be really good (I’ll be seeing that one soon), we’ve got the CHE two parter, we’ve got the two IP MAN movies even though that wasn’t originally intended as a series I don’t think. Anyway I think this could be as viable a genre as super heroes and I would really like to see an IP MAN VS. MESRINE, but I just gotta figure out why they end up fighting. I know for sure that Ip Man tries to avoid fighting at first and that it has something to do with Chinese pride. Possibly Quebec is trying to colonize China. I’m not sure how it would work.
Come to think of it the real artistic gold would be in an AVENGERS type deal. All the criminal biopic characters would team up and steal so much money they could control the world, and only a superteam of martial arts biopic characters like Ip Man (Donnie Yen) and Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) could stop them. There might need to be some sort of time portal or supernatural thing to make it work, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice.
One fun part would be that the criminals would also fight among themselves and like THE EXPENDABLES it would be carefully designed to have all the great matchups you would want to see. Obviously the highlight of the whole thing would be the fight between Eric Bana as Chopper and Tom Hardy as Bronson, an event made possible when Mesrine and Stander bust the two out of prison and into a different, neutral prison where there’s an UNDISPUTED type fight circuit.
If any of this happens in MESRINE #2: PUBLIC ENEMY #1 don’t spoil it for me, I’ll be seeing it in about a month.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.