If Jacques Mesrine didn't really exist, some screenwriter would have invented him. Like Tom Hardy's Bronson, Mesrine was a charming bastard, a stylish fiend, a bank robber with a silver tongue and a psychotic disposition. Mesrine spent most of the 1960s and 1970s bounding from bank heist to prison cell and breaking back out again all over France. Like a Capone or Dillinger, he became a notorious folk legend -- the honest bandit. But what's perhaps most interesting is that while he sat in prison, Mesrine became disgusted with the blasphemous coverage in the papers, so he published his own account of his exploits: murders, mayhem, and making of the love. Which is primarily where director Jean-Francois Richet and screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri take their story from. Plenty of movies have been made about Mesrine, but this one is adapted directly from the man himself. Which means you have to take it with a grain of salt. The man was a known dissembler and exaggerator, and when confronted by his attorney with a copy of Killer Instinct, Mesrine gives a Gallic shrug and claims perhaps it was puffed up as a way of throwing off the jury. Who's going to believe that a man would openly confess to the crimes he was accused of? So the result is kind of a highlight reel of every European heist film and every gangster legend ever told. It's all vignettes, smoked through like Gauloises, moments of Mesrine's life as filtered through some of the best French actors working today. With all that talent and having to split the four hour film into two parts, it somehow doesn't give the filmmakers time to actually give anyone a character, which unfortunately includes Mesrine himself. So the end result is about forty really interesting tall tales about a French criminal Mastermind. Would have made a killer fucking miniseries, but not so much a film.
Part I is titled "Killer Instinct" and gives us a brief cut-scene of the end of the film before taking us through the French version of Mafia Wars. It's just before the 1960s are beginning, and the French are getting Vietnammed out of Algeria. Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is a young conscripted soldier who is forced by his commanding officer to execute a captured prisoner's sister, but executes the prisoner instead. It's supposed to demonstrate the complex morality of Jacques Mesrine -- he'll kill but on his own terms and under his own code -- but instead it comes off as a comic book origins story. And that's how he became Robin 'ood. Discharged, he's forced to return to his family, where an unsavory friend named Paul (Gilles Lellouche) happens to have an unsavory connection to an unsavory crime boss named Guido (Gerard Depardieu). Honest to God, I was expecting him to have to knock over a shipment of cell phones before having to send his friend energy packs -- it's every motherfucking mob movie ever made. I realize that the events are factual, or as factual as we can expect from Mesrine's mouth, but still it doesn't make them feel any less derivative.
And that's most of the problem with Mesrine; it just feels like a hobo's campfire story based on the Mafia section of Netflix. That, and there are absolutely no female characters. Oh, there are plenty of female actresses, but the portrayal is somewhere on the ranks between a Bond babe and the cardboard cutouts that advertise beer. If they aren't a stereotypical cliche -- the nagging mother, the foreign wife, the abused hooker -- they're basically getting poled by Cassel. Which is doubly insulting when you consider that Mesrine had a Bonnie and Clyde-type gunmoll relationship with Jeanne Schneider (Cecile De France), who gets short-shrifted into little less than some dim girlfriend who can handle a shotgun. It's slightly forgivable when you filter that all the guys are reduced pretty much to broad stereotypes as well, and that the entire film is supposed to be "as told by Mesrine" who was a notorious attention whore. The guy read his exploits in the papers every day, constantly gushed at the broadcasts that depicted him as a noble rebel, and would often contact reporters for interviews while on the lam. He was a publicity junkie, who happened to earn that by robbing banks and breaking out of prisons.
Which is why Killer Instinct is still an interesting film. While sometimes getting repetitive, it's hilarious to realize that pretty much every one of Mesrine's bank heists ends with a daylight gunfight with cops, followed by a crashing car pursuit in some form of Renault. And he wasn't just a bank robber, he also frequently kidnapped masters of industry. He wasn't invincible, and usually ended up in prison, only to escape several times over. Which again, feels a bit like you've heard this tale before. But the heists and the escapes are pretty splendid little pieces.
Also, the acting -- despite the complete lack of subtext or character -- is pretty top shelf. Cassel is fantastic as the mercurial Mesrine. He plays charming and psychotic with equal aplomb. The supporting cast does what they can with the material -- both of Mesrine's parents are wonderful, his buddy Paul's not too shabby. Depardieu has settled into a lovely little Brando role. He's a former romantic lead who's cream cheesed himself into the more hearty and bombastic roles. As Guild, Depardieu gets a role he can sink his teeth into, and he's splendid. You get the feeling the role was expanded for the expansive Frenchman, and rightfully so.
Part I builds on Mesrine building a reputation -- his penchant for publicity, his violent streaks, how seemingly the corruption in the system is what led him to his deviancy. If pulled from Mesrine's material, I think he wants you to feel like he was mostly a good guy who couldn't get a break because of the corruption in the military, followed by the corruption in the economic system -- last hired first fired and trying to find work as both a dishonorable discharge and ex-con, and then followed by the extreme corruption in the prison system. Richet gives him that, lingering on his mistreatment in the prison, but ultimately he appreciates the fact that Mesrine is still a dangerous narcissistic maniac. Which brings us to Part II, Public Enemy No1, which deals mostly with the cult of celebrity around criminals and how Mesrine used that to both furnish his ascent and hasten his downfall.