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Mesrine: Killer Instinct/Public Enemy No. 1

Mesrine: Killer Instinct/Public Enemy No. 1
Music Box Films
Rated R
Now Showing at:
Review by: Larry Thomas

Every country has experienced the fame and legend of a “Public Enemy Number One.” In America, it was John Dillinger, who captivated the populace with his bravado and daring. Three decades after the demise of Dillinger, the French equivalent was Jacques Mesrine. He got his first taste of violence while in the French Army during the Algerian war in the sixties. When he returned home, an ordinary day job was not to his liking, and he hooked up with a friend to pull off some burglaries. And, as with any other drug, it escalated from there. During his career, Jacques Mesrine was responsible for daring bank robberies, death defying prison escapes, multiple kidnappings, and claimed more than three dozen murders on his resume. He was also adept at using various disguises to elude the police, earning him the moniker “The Man of a Hundred Faces.”

When the time came to tell his story on the screen, director Jean-Francois Richet elected to do so in two separate films. We don’t know if Richet was encouraged by the success of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, but the tale of Mesrine had more than enough stories and characters to fill the screen twice over.

Part one is Mesrine: Killer Instinct, which begins with Mesrine’s introduction to killing while in the army, and continues through 1972, which included a crime spree in Canada with a brief stop in the US. Part 2, Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, picks up with his return to France and the rest of his notorious career until his death in 1979.

Unlike The Godfather saga, the Mesrine films are about one man, not a whole family across multiple generations, so the star must carry the films. The great French actor Vincent Cassell is more than up to the challenge. Although a huge star in France, Cassell is likely best known in this country for roles in Oceans Twelve and Thirteen, and as a character voice in the first Shrek film. He will be seen in a few weeks in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan opposite Natalie Portman. Cassell makes the most of his screen time as Mesrine. He’s ruthless and vicious, but cares deeply for his aging father. There’s a particularly chilling scene in which he explains to his wife where she stands in relation to his crime buddies and his exploits. And like Dillinger, he seems benign to the ordinary citizen, and treats them with kindness.

The rest of the cast is also excellent, especially Cecile de France in Part One, as Mesrine’s mistress. She was incredibly good a few weeks ago in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, so I’m guessing Eastwood saw her in this film before casting her in his. An almost unrecognizable Gerard Depardieu, who has left his days as a swaggering sex symbol behind him, plays the crime boss who guides Mesrine’s career. But his talent hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s still able to command the screen.

Director Richet, who helmed the little-seen remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct Thirteen, makes excellent use of the split-screen technique and keeps the pacing brisk. After these two films, he should have no trouble getting high-profile assignments.

As with most films of this genre, there is quite a bit of violence, but it doesn’t overpower the action or detract from what’s crucial to the story. If this were an American-made film, Vincent Cassell would be a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar nomination. He is that good.

The R-rated Mesrine: Killer Instinct is currently showing at the Esquire Theatre, with Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One opening at the Esquire on Friday. It’s not required to see them in any particular order, as both work as stand-alone films. But both are among the best films of the year.


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