John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson -- Hollywood has long had a love affair with real-life gangsters. A few decades ago, there was a crime boss in France who made that kind of impression: Jacques Mesrine, coldblooded, hot-tempered, unashamedly brutal and the wielder of a killer smile. And in the biopic Mesrine: Killer Instinct, he gives his better-known American rivals a run for their cinematic money.
Adapted from a memoir that Mesrine wrote in prison, the film takes him from shooting unarmed rebels in Algiers to robbing banks and kidnapping a wealthy employer in Canada to breaking out of -- and then back into -- a supposedly escape-proof prison.
The filmmakers never even remotely try to make him appealing. But they sure make him seductive. At one point, they have him dancing with a woman who'll soon be his wife -- sexy, slow -- and somehow he's also dancing with the camera. As she melts in his arms, the audience gets caught up in the embrace. Then our antihero returns to his whore, slaughters a pimp and buries a guy alive, and you're left thinking, "Oh, yeah, there's that side of him."
Jacques Mesrine is played by Vincent Cassell, a tall, lanky French star (you've seen him in the Ocean's 11 films, if nowhere else) whose intensity is a lot like that of the young Gerard Depardieu. That comparison occurs to me because Depardieu is in the picture, playing a gentlemanly older thug who takes Mesrine under his wing and tries to show him how to keep violence and his domestic life separate. Long story short: It doesn't work. The violence escalates even as Mesrine becomes a father, and escalates even more when he meets a prostitute who says she's up for anything, and becomes a Bonnie to his Clyde.
The real Mesrine was known as a man of a thousand faces, and the film -- or rather films, the second of which arrives in theaters in September -- cover the whole of his criminal career. Director Jean-Francois Richet filmed both installments in one long epic shoot, across nine months and several continents. And though there was some talk about condensing the two parts into a single film for American audiences, wiser heads have prevailed.
Richet and his co-screenwriter (Abdel Raouf Dafri, who also wrote the terrific French gangster film A Prophet, so he's having a good year) make it a point not to glorify their subject, but that doesn't keep Killer Instinct from playing like a classic gangster flick. This is still the upward half of the story arc, remember; he's still hitting his criminal stride.
The fall and the paranoia will come in the next part, when Mesrine becomes Public Enemy Number One. And anyone who sees this half is going to be clamoring to catch that half on opening day. (Recommended)