Mesrine: Killer Instinct is the first of two films spanning the life and career of French criminal Jacques Mesrine, directed by Jean-François Richet and starring Vincent Cassel as Mesrine. Cassel is an intensely charismatic actor, and as such he’s a pretty natural fit for Mesrine. He’s easily able to capture the many sides of the character, from passionate romantic and gregarious playboy to focused criminal-in-training to suspicious and studied career criminal. The supporting cast is all aces, from a fattened Gerard Depardieu as crime boss Guido, to Elena Anaya as Mesrine’s wife Sofia, to Cecile De France as Mesrine’s partner-in-crime-and-kidnapping Jeanne Schneider. Part of what makes Mesrine’s story so fascinating is the global scope of it. After growing up in a modest home in France and serving as a soldier in the Algerian war, he returns from the war and comes home, falling in with old friends and the wrong crowd, and heading down a path of small-time robberies. He connects with Depardieu’s Guido who serves as a criminal mentor, and the scale of the robberies escalates over time. Eventually he becomes widely sought after in France, heads for Canada, hooks up with Jeanne Schneider, and after a brief fling going straight as a construction worker, decides to kidnap a billionaire for ransom. His eventual arrest leads to a long prison sentence and eventual escape, but it’s his time in prison that imbue him with some anti-government, pseudo-political leanings.
I’ve read favorable comparisons between these films and The Godfather I and II, and as solid as the Mesrine films are, that’s giving them far more credit than they’re due. While they’re well-acted across the board and well-directed, there’s nothing that really approaches the level of cinematic masterpiece of the two Godfather films. If anything, the epic scope of the Mesrine films comes simply from the international breadth of Mesrine’s career and the story itself. I’m uncertain if the films were originally intended to be one long movie, and were split in two for distribution purposes. It certainly feels that way, and the films function better and more coherently if watched all in one viewing. Killer Instinct, in particular, suffers as a result of being viewed on its own, but as that is the way it has been released, that’s the way I’m going to review it.
So, taken alone, the problems with Mesrine: Killer Instinct are three-fold. The first is something that happens in the opening scene of the film, so I don’t really consider revealing it a spoiler. That opening scene is a flash-forward to Mesrine’s death. The problem here is that the scene in its entirety doesn’t occur until the end of the film’s sequel, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1. As such, and taken alone, Mesrine: Killer Instinct becomes a film where we watch the main character killed in the opening, and it makes the audience far less interested in investing in him or his story; we already know his fate. What makes this element more problematic is the fact that the narrative of Mesrine’s life never reaches that point by the end of Killer Instinct, so the beginning of the film becomes not only sabotaging to the material, but a cinematic non-sequitur.
The second problem is that ultimately, the audience needs a reason to root for Mesrine, or at least a reason to be interested in him and his plight. There are plenty of gangster films out there that humanize the lead character in some way so that the audience cares enough to emotionally invest in the story, even when the protagonist has questionable morals at best. The flip side would be not to humanize the character, but simply to present a fascinating character study. But Mesrine isn’t really a psychological or character study, at base it’s a bravura performance by Cassel and as such, we’re intended to invest in the character and to care about him to some degree. The problem is that, as varied and skilled a performance Cassel gives, we never really see a vulnerable side to the character in Killer Instinct. We’re left watching many sides of him, but ultimately nothing to relate to or to truly make an audience care about him. Inevitably the question arises: Why am I supposed to care about this protagonist or this story, or this film? And it’s not a question that the first film ever tries to answer.
Finally, the third hurdle that Killer Instinct throws up in front of itself is Mesrine’s treatment of his wife Sofia. There’s a period in the film where we see the romantic side of Mesrine, and he courts, wins, and marries this Spanish beauty. For a time, it seems as though the film may chart the distance between’s Mesrine’s criminal career and his desire to be a family man and to love his wife. Then the scene plays where Mesrine beats his wife, makes her open her mouth so that he can place a loaded gun inside it, while their child watches no less, and tells her that he will never care about her more than he cares about his friends, and if that she ever calls the police to try to “save” him he will kill her. At that point, any chance for a sympathetic protagonist goes right out the window. Now, I’m not necessarily trying to argue for any kind of retroactive character retooling or changing something that actually happened in real life to make Mesrine a nicer, more cuddly protagonist. But this scene and dynamic, when taken along with the fact that the audience is kept at arm’s length from the character for the entire running length of the film, and the fact that we never really get to see a side of the character to make an audience invest in him in any way, culminates in a real narrative and storytelling dilemma.
As good as the acting is (and Roy Dupuis is also great as Jean-Paul Mercier), there simply become few reasons to care about Mesrine. We’re left to witness the nonstop parade of Mesrine’s crimes from an uninvolved distance. And by the time the film reaches its climax with Mesrine in prison and attempting to escape, the whole thing seems fairly pointless. And that’s a discredit to the top-notch creative efforts of everyone involved with the film.