If you watch one hard-nosed gangster movie this year, watch two.
The two parts of Jean-François Richet’s biopic of Jacques Mesrine, France’s most wanted from 1959- 79, that is. Part two is called Public Enemy No. 1 and it nudges Michael Mann’s Public Enemies into third spot, Johnny Depp’s star wattage dimming next to Vincent Cassel’s savage, sneering swagger.
Recalling rock-hard French genre setters such as Rififi, Mesrine balances an ensemble sprawl with a fierce one-man focus. Part one, Killer Instinct, traces Mesrine from atrocities in Algeria through to homecoming, housebreaking, serial seducing, bank-robbing, kidnapping, racist horrors and an improbably thrilling jail-break.
One hit you could aim at Killer is that viewers are merely swept up by the life of this “detestable but fascinating” (Cassel’s words) character, but they’re not enlightened. Perhaps it’s no surprise Mesrine the man fascinates, the film being based on his own writing. But he’s no pretty picture – addressing a marital dispute by putting a gun in his wife’s gob pretty much blitzes any sympathies.
Enemy serves sure perspective, looking on as Mesrine falls for his own myth. Trying to dictate his image Chopper-style, he adopts disguises (“Man of a thousand faces”, indeed), poses for photos (“That’s a keeper”), claims allegiance to radical factions and, in an act of extreme self-PR, tortures of crime shaping his character and fate for him whether he likes it or not.
Cassel is the main show here, blazing through the film with a watchful and feral poise, still but ever-ready to lunge. The margins hold firm, mind: Cécile De France is excellent as the Mallory to his Mickey and Ludivine Sagnier impresses in a thinner role. Terrific to see Gérard Depardieu too, playing a roly-poly mob boss so oily with threat he should be called Jabba rather than Guido.
But as the Making Of extras assert, Richet at least aimed for authenticity, names and elsewhere. The rapid-fire shoot-outs that screech by on screen in fact cleave closely to police records. It’s “51 per cent true,” reckons Richet. Not much of a figure, perhaps, but specific enough to suggest a certain meticulousness from the filmmakers.
It’s a shame the extras don’t include historical matter, the lengthy Making Ofs being fully castpopulated but still standard-order disc fodder. But it’s good to play the films as one. Not least because part two purposefully undercuts the first’s rabid rush, as the vile dazzle of Mesrine’s ascent turns to political contradictions that expose the shallows beneath his brash exterior.
Killer Instinct is horribly gripping. But it belongs alongside its older, wiser, more slyly searching sibling.
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