Reviewer: Steve Dollar
Rating (out of 5): ***
Don't screw with Vincent Cassel. If there's any French actor destined to play his country's most notorious gangster, it's this guy. Cassel's headlong stride, vivid emotional range and masculine charisma make him ideal for volatile character studies and anti-heroics. The forthcoming Our Day Will Come (Notre Jour Viendra) builds an entire movie around Cassel, playing a renegade shrink who takes an emotionally troubled teenager under his wing and basically shows the boy how to be a man – a process that involves a lot of dangerous, illegal and outrageous behavior.
But nothing on the order of Jacques Mesrine, France's own Public Enemy No. 1, who sustained an incredible crime spree for two decades across four continents, before the French Minister of the Interior dispatched a truckful of sharpshooters to execute him in the middle of traffic in 1979. The film Mesrine: Killer Instinct, directed by Jean-François Richet (Assault on Precinct 13), is based on Mesrine's jailhouse autobiography L'Instinct de Mort. And while Cassel's performance as Mesrine won the 2009 Cesar Award for best actor, the production itself isn't more than you'd expect: a crispy executed action flick with all the familiar scenes everyone knows from every gangster movie they've ever seen, up through Goodfellas and The Sopranos.
Bank robberies. Whore smacking. Near-miss gangland execution attempts while taking the daughter for a walk. Jail breaks. Kidnapping wealthy invalids. Dark humor while driving a colleague to the woods for a whacking (complete with not-quite-dead-yet burial in a shallow grave). Extra painful amateur surgery to remove bullet from wound.
Vicious domestic gunplay.
Kiss, kiss. Bang, bang. With style to burn.
A lot of that comes from Cassel himself, who inhabits the role with animal instinct. Look as closely as you want and tell me if there's any deeper psychology going on in the largely subtext-free screenplay. Compared to something loosely in the same ballpark, like Olivier Assayas's Carlos, its ambitions are on an entirely tighter scale. There seems to be no profound explanation for what makes Mesrine Mesrine other than he appears born to the life -- brutal conditioning as a French soldier in Algiers and the prospect of easy money, easy women and fast thrills, for sure. Although once he becomes an international celebrity of crime, Mesrine embraces his persona as if he's a movie star. Others get killed, disappear after a jail term, or fade away, but he keeps moving like a shark.
Cassel, who commands every frame, is absolutely magnetic, although he's surrounded by actors you always want to watch, including Cécile De France as his shotgun-toting partner in crime, Jeanne Schnieder, Gerard Depardieu as the corpulent mob boss Guido, Gilles Lellouche as his best friend, Paul, who first introduces him to gangsterism, and (briefly) Elena Anaya as the wife who almost makes him go straight. (Ludivine Sagnier awaits in Mesrine: Part Two).
Despite the high body count and several acts of insane cruelty, the film never drifts into action-flick autopilot. The story often advances through shorthand, dispensing with connective exposition by simply cutting to the chase. The scenes have an impulsive energy, which sparks up Cassel's magnetism all the more. Killer Instinct is a killer popcorn movie.
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