Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Dir: Jean-François Richet

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Music Box Films

113 Minutes

Let’s ignore the pretense that Jacques Mesrine, the French gangster who robbed, murdered and shot his way across France and Quebec for much of the ’60s and ’70s, was soured by his experience torturing and killing people in Algeria while serving in the French Army. Though director Jean-François Richet may briefly allude to Mesrine’s North African tenure briefly in Mesrine: Killer Instinct, the first of two films about the criminal, it really all boils down to the fact that the guy was a badass motherfucker. He robs two banks in one stick-up, knifes a pimp in the side before burying him alive, beats his wife and attempts to take on an entire prison armed only with a machine gun and a sidekick. And all of that happens in this first film only.

Played with a simmering ferocity by Vincent Cassel, Mesrine really isn’t much fun. During the first installment’s two hours, he cracks a smile much less often than he cracks skulls. This is fine and dandy, except Richet does nothing to dig into the psyche of the character or his motivations. Much like long, glossy biopics American Gangster and Public Enemies, this first section of Mesrine does nothing to ingratiate the titular subject with the audience, nor does it penetrate the gloomy angel of death façade Cassel wears for its entire runtime.

Yet, despite its broad characterizations and some confusing chronology, Mesrine: Killer Instinct still manages to entertain. Rather than have us empathize with Mesrine, like other gangster flicks try to do with their protagonists, Cassel and Richet instead want is to marvel at the size of this guy’s balls. Graduating from humble beginnings of breaking and entering, Mesrine is soon working for Gérard Depardieu’s sinister Guido, running card games and assassinating the competition. Soon, Mesrine is knocking off entire ballrooms of people but after crossing the wrong folks, he must flee to Quebec. Here, Killer Instinct turns into a prison break drama with a tense scene that rivals even The Great Escape.

While it is impossible to fully review half of a larger film, Mesrine: Killer Instinct is a little too episodic for its own good. After two hours, I am eager to see what finally befalls Mesrine (prefaced in the film’s teaser prelude) but I am not completely invested in the character. Unfortunately, Richet has made a film completely unlike its subject: all gloss and no guts.

by David Harris
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