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Mesrine: Killer Instinct
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by Jay Seaver

"Richet's and Cassel's instincts are good; could have been a trilogy."
4 stars

The story of French outlaw Jacques Mesrine is a grand, sprawling one, so large that Jean-François Richet felt the need to split it into two films in order to do it justice. Watching the first one, covering Mesrine's rise to prominence in the 1960s, it's possible to make a case that this doesn't go far enough, as "Killer Instinct" itself could very easily be divided in half, with each segment expanded into a strong film.

Though we are briefly introduced to an older Mesrine, the film quickly flashes back to his origins: In 1959, Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is approaching the end of a tour as a French soldier in Algeria, and somewhat hesitant about the brutal techniques used to quell the rebellion. He's soon back in Paris, and while his parents (Michel Duchaussoy and Myriam Boyer) have lined up a job for him, his friend Paul (Gilles Lellouche) has found him far more lucrative "off the books" work for gangster Guido (Gerard Depardieu). Soon he's a successful bank robber, and has met and married Spanish beauty Sofia (Elena Anaya), but armed robbery and domesticity don't mix, and by the late sixties, he and new flame Jeanne Schneider (Cecile De France) have fled for Montreal, where Quebec separatist Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis) could use a man like Mesrine.

Though the two halves overlap somewhat, the geographical split ensures that Cassel's Mesrine is the only character to be a factor all the way through. While that certainly gives Cassel plenty of opportunity to shine, it also can make the telling of Mesrine's story feel a bit shallow: Love interests and partners in crime (sometimes the same people, sometimes in opposition) seem to be rushed on and off the stage, with barely a chance to establish themselves before being replaced with the next year's models. The idea may be to establish Mesrine as larger than life, a man for whom others are just temporary, supporting characters, but it often has the effect of making the others seem neglected. It also may leave the audience vaguely wondering if there's something to the pattern of Mesrine joining groups that seem to position themselves as something other than mere criminal organizations that could be made more explicit.

The flip side of that is that compressing ten years and two distinct periods of Mesrine's life into just under two hours leaves Richet (and the audience) with a movie that moves. Killer Instinct is packed full of bank robberies, prison breaks, hostage situations, and other kinds of action scenes, although there is still just enough time between to get to know the characters and their world, or see Jacques briefly attempt to make an honest living. Richet uses the traditional method of ramping up the action scenes from humble beginnings to good effect - its not just that these sequences get more elaborate as the film goes along, but the tenor changes - early scenes have Jacques and Paul relying on guile more than force, or run on Depardieu and Cassel cranking up tension; as the film goes on, there's a recklessness to them that reflects Jacques's increasing flamboyance and hot-headedness. The last half hour or so is one slam-bang action scene after another.

It's a good reflection of Vincent Cassel's portrayal of Mesrine. This is a character who is never timid or meek, but is gradually coming into his own in terms of not being constrained by society's rules and expectations. He does an excellent job of connecting the dots between Mesrine's romantic core and often violent nature; we never doubt him as a powerful, volatile force, but after the movie finishes, it may be the moments of turmoil and relative powerlessness that are most memorable. He makes Mesrine human without making him merely life-size.

He's go the whole film to do that, while the other characters must make their impression in somewhat more limited time, though they are individually and collectively up to it. We only get a brief glimpse of Ludivine Sagnier before the flashbacks begin (she'll play a much larger part in Public Enemy Number One), and Elena Anaya is there for the traditional "innocent young girl falls for dangerous man, balks when marriage does not change him" arc (though she does it well), but Cecile de France is an attention-grabber as Jeanne, a like-minded partner whose criminal nature complements and reinforces Jacques'. Gerard Depardieu has the confident senior gangster down to a science, and Canadian actor Roy Dupuis is a fine partner in crime as Mercier.

The end sees Jacques Mesrine a much different person than he was in the beginning, and though we get a wrap-up of how some of the other characters fared after the events of the movie, Mesrine's story is clearly only half-complete. The film literally ends on an ellipsis, happily promising more action - and more of Cassel's performance - to come.

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originally posted: 09/12/10 13:04:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 22-Feb-2011

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