Mesrine: Killer Instinct
Directed by Jean-Francois Richet
Mesrine: Killer Instinct—the first installment of a two-part biopic about the notorious bank robber and jailbreaker—debuted at Lincoln Center's annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series in 2009, along with the concurrently shot sequel, Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1. (The latter will be released here next month). Together they make for a stylish, distinctly Gallic take on the American gangster picture.
In Killer Instinct, future P.E. Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), discharged from the Algerian War, returns to the cool Paris of Breathless and Bob le flambeur. Though Mesrine's father has arranged a steady position for him, he's drawn instead to the underworld, and is soon doing heists and hits for a mobster (Gerard Depardieu, thriving in a small but stately role).
In these early scenes especially, director Jean-Francois Richet (Assault on Precinct 13) apes his share of Scorsese—the gliding Steadicam shots, the garish wardrobes, the ironic soundtrack. Much the way Goodfellas and Gangs of New York portrayed violence as a dimension of the American character, Killer Instinct posits crime as inextricable from French identity. Mesrine's proclaimed political convictions were mostly horseshit (e.g. his support for Quebecois secessionism), but as Richet shows, his wartime service and xenophobia are crucial to understanding the development of his criminal mind.
As an epic about a self-styled insurgent from the middle class, the Mesrine cycle bears more than a passing resemblance to Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che. But whereas Soderbergh's films were joyless, Killer Instinct (if not the darker Public Enemy No. 1) has the lightness, the flair, and the sense of humor of an old-fashioned swashbuckler. Near the end of Killer Instinct, Mesrine breaks into a prison he has recently escaped. Ostensibly he's there to rescue some buddies, but the impish look in Cassel's eye suggests he's doing it because he can.
Opens August 27