Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review - Mesrine: Killer Instinct (L'instinct de mort)

If you're going to spread someone's life story over the course of two feature films, you'd better make sure that person has lived the kind of life that merits such close attention. On first glance, one would think that shouldn't be a problem in the case of Jacques Mesrine. Mesrine: Killer Instinct, the first part of Jean-François Richet's diptych, follows Mesrine from Algeria, to Paris, to Montreal and Arizona, as the French gangster robs banks, commits murders, and even kidnaps the odd paralysed millionaire. No shortage of incident then, but as Richet races to cram every event from Mesrine's early years into Part 1, he leaves perilously little room for any insight. Throughout Killer Instinct, Richet is concerned only with telling us how Mesrine (played by Vincent Cassel) went about his business: How he became a criminal after leaving the army; How he fell in with a shady Parisian crime lord (Gérard Depardieu); How he staged an audacious escape from a high-security prison, and then almost pulled off an even more audacious attempt to break out his former inmates. But rarely get a proper sense of why Jacques Mesrine went down this road, although maybe Richet is saving those questions up for Part 2.

For now, let us focus on what we have, which is an powerful Vincent Cassel, an occasionally incoherent story, and buckets of style, all of which adds up to a reasonably entertaining picture. The film opens with the moments leading to Mesrine's death, which Richet builds up to in a cool, tense, 70's style credit sequence, following Cassel and a bewigged Ludivine Sagnier (who otherwise doesn't appear in this instalment) as they unwittingly walk into an ambush. Richet then jumps back two decades, to an incident from Mesrine's time in Algeria, when he murders a prisoner during an interrogation, perhaps suggesting this encounter fuelled the propensity for violence and racism that we see later in the film. Moments later, Mesrine is out of the army and back home, but the steady factory job his father has secured for him doesn't hold any appeal, particularly when he sees the kind of car an old friend has earned from what he describes as "off the books" work.

Soon the pair are making a tidy sum as housebreakers under the watchful eye of Guido (Depardieu), who likes what he sees in this fiery young upstart. Mesrine is tough and sharp, and in one amusing sequence, his quick-thinking gets him and an accomplice out of trouble when they are rumbled by the occupants of the house they're looting. He also has a roving eye, and within the first hour he has established a relationship with a prostitute (Florence Thomassin) – whose pimp receives a violent comeuppance for beating her – and a virginal Spanish woman he meets on holiday, who very quickly becomes his wife. Sofia (Elena Anaya) is a loving, supportive spouse, and she bears him a couple of kids, but even she feels his wrath when she tries to pull him away from the life of crime he has dedicated himself to.

The problem with
Killer Instinct is that all of these relationships are based on brief sketches, with none of them being given enough screen time to feel tangibly real, and the film suffers from a serious lack of depth as a result. This lack of contextualising of Mesrine's relationships reaches its lowest – and most baffling – point when he hooks up with Jeanne Schneider (Cécile De France). He meets her in a bar, barely a word is exchanged, and in the very next scene the pair are robbing a casino at gunpoint, having seemingly cemented a partnership that will see them travelling to Canada together on a crime spree. It's around this point that Killer Instinct's severely compressed narrative loses its way, but even if the film's storytelling technique isn't a model of clarity, the picture is never less than enjoyable, and it's frequently gripping. The lavish production creates an authentic period atmosphere, and Richet's direction is impressive in an energetically punchy kind of way. He has a knack for developing a considerable sense of tension before exploding into violence, and he stages a series of quite brilliant set-pieces throughout the film, with the best involving Mesrine's stint at a brutal Canadian jail. His escape, and his subsequent attempt to spring the prisoners he left behind are brilliantly handled by Richet, who directs the climactic shootout with a thrilling intensity that recalls Michael Mann.

And while the film rockets relentlessly forward, a collection of superior performances hold it together, even if the thin characterisations prevent them from really showing what they can do. Cassel gives a compelling, full-blooded display as Mesrine: charismatic and edgy, and able to flip instantly into violence in a convincing fashion. An unrecognisable Cécile De France makes a fair impact in a role that doesn't really go anywhere, but it's the old veteran Depardieu who really stamps his authority on the picture. He's carrying a Brando-esque girth these days, but although he spends most of his fleeting appearances seated behind a desk, he radiates benign menace, and he put me in mind of a quote from
Goodfellas: "He might have moved slow, but that was because he didn't have to move for anybody." Alas, Depardieu won't be bringing such gravity to the second half of Mesrine's story, but the promise of roles for Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric, Olivier Gourmet, Georges Wilson and Anne Consigny is more than enough to attract me back for more. Killer Instinct is a slick but disappointingly shallow account of Mesrine's life, and one hopes Richet will find time in the second instalment to probe a little deeper into the man behind these remarkable escapades. Will all of this ultimately make sense when we've seen how the whole of Mesrine's life was lived? We'll find out when Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 is released in a few weeks.