Mesrine: Killer Instinct (France/Canada/Italy, 2008)

August 14, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Mesrine: Killer Instinct Poster

If there's one thing to be disliked about Mesrine: Killer Instinct, it's the inauspicious ending. Part One of a two-part saga (with the conclusion in Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One), the movie feels incomplete, which is unsurprising considering that it was scripted and filmed as a single entity and only broken up for logistical reasons: it's hard to get people to sit in a theater for more than four hours, even if the subject is compelling. Nevertheless, it's understandable if a viewer of Mesrine: Killer Instinct reacts with a degree of frustration when the end credits arrive - because it's less of an ending than it is a pause and, depending upon the circumstances in which it is viewed, Part Two may not yet be available.

The combined film was nominated for ten César Awards, of which it won three (Best Actor, Best Director, Best Sound). The performance by Vincent Cassel, who portrays the title character, is unquestionably deserving of every citation that was accorded. Cassel, who has appeared in his share of violent and controversial productions in the past (including the infamous Irreversible), is astonishing as Mesrine, capturing the essence of a complex criminal during various stages of his life (the events of Parts One and Two combined span slightly over 20 years) and riveting the viewer's attention. Cassel gained about 40 pounds to play the part and the back-to-back filming was done in reverse chronological order so that as the actor lost weight, he became more like the thinner, younger Mesrine.

The story attempts to present a balanced portrayal of the legendary French gangster, depicting him not only as a killer and a robber, but as a talented plotter and a loyal friend. During his lifetime, he achieved an almost mythical status not unlike that of John Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, there are instances when director Jean-François Richet borrows from the iconic Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway movie about the American duo. Mesrine is more bloody and graphic than Bonnie and Clyde and, in the pantheon of crime movies, it eschews the romanticism of The Godfather in favor of the brutality of Goodfellas. Nevertheless, although some of Mesrine's darker moments are brought to the screen (such as an instance when he terrorizes his wife with a gun to her mouth), the production is generally sympathetic. This is perhaps expected since the primary source material for Killer Instinct is Mesrine's autobiography of the same name (which was written during a time he spent in prison during the early 1970s).

The movie opens with a flash-forward to the end of Mesrine's life, when he is trapped and executed on a road in the outskirts of Paris. The story then slips back more than two decades to the late 1950s, when Mesrine is serving in the French army during the Algerian War. Killer Instinct argues that some of the atrocities Mesrine observes and participates in during his military career forge his post-war personality. After returning to France, Mesrine almost immediately becomes involved in a cycle of crime that includes murders, robberies, and stints in prison. His primary cohorts are Paul (Gilles Lellouche) and low-level crime boss Guido (Gerard Depardieu). He marries girlfriend Sofia (Elena Anaya), but their relationship is violent and rocky and she eventually leaves him. When things become too hot for Mesrine in France, he flees to Quebec, where he becomes friendly with Canadian criminal Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis) while entering a romantic entanglement with Jeanne Schneider (Cecile De France), who becomes Bonnie to his Clyde. Robberies, murders, and a kidnapping follow, the result of which is Mesrine being captured while hiding out in the United States. After being extradited to Canada and standing trial, he is sentenced to ten years in the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul maximum security prison. He and Mercier escape in 1972 and return to their illegal activities.

Killer Instinct is generally fast-paced but the need to cram about 15 years of Mesrine's life into less than two hours results in uneven patches. There are times when slices of time are bypassed, and this results in a sense of poor continuity. The film essentially becomes a "greatest hits" approach to Mesrine's early period as a criminal. Only during the second half of Killer Instinct, once Mesrine has been incarcerated in Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, does the narrative settle into a less jumpy, linear trajectory. The final 45 minutes are the best the production has to offer, showing the title character's brutal torture while in solitary confinement then detailing his escape and his life immediately thereafter. These sequences are every bit as compelling as what might expect from the likes of Michael Mann or Brian de Palma. In fact, comparisons between Mesrine and Mann's Public Enemies could be made. Both have similar problems with pacing (although Mesrine is a little tighter) and present common strengths (well-developed tension during certain key sequences). The style here is categorized by high energy, with a lot more flashiness than one expects from the laid-back French film industry. One suspects that when Richet crafted the two-part epic, he did so with a view of international distribution. It took two years for it to reach United States screens; The Music Box, currently enjoying success with its staggered theatrical release of The Millennium Trilogy, opted to try something similar with Mesrine, selecting about a month's break between the two movies.

As biographical crime thrillers go, Killer Instinct is a worthy entry to the genre, although the incompleteness of the story makes it difficult to evaluate on its own. The movie needs to be seen in the context of a greater whole for it to be fully appreciated. As a stand-alone motion picture, Killer Instinct is entertaining despite its unevenness, but the sudden stop at the end of the 113-minute running time is a buzzkill and a reason to hold off watching Mesrine until Public Enemy Number One is available.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (France/Canada/Italy, 2008)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2010-08-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: In French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1