Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Mesrine: Killer Instinct **

To call this biopic a French Goodfellas is accurate enough, but it’s also comparable to a recent German import, The Baader Meinhof Complex. Like Scorsese’s film, it tells the story of a young guy who gets involved with organized crime in the ‘60s and rises through the ranks while his personal life disintegrates. Like the German film, it’s a complicated story of gangsters and politics with a global setting. Director Jean-François Richet uses a few interesting tricks like multiple screens to jazz things up, but the film’s heart is a terrific performance from Vincent Cassell. (He’s also the ballet boss in Black Swan.)

As the film puts it, Jacques Mesrine was introduced to violence as a soldier in Algeria. When he comes back to Paris, he goes to work for mob boss Guido (Gerard Depardieu), marries a pretty Spanish girl (Elena Anaya) and takes up with a moll (Cecile de France). Without dwelling on details, the film spins out his story as an escalating series of robberies, murders, kidnappings, incarcerations and affairs with beautiful women. In short, it’s the same stuff that American gangster movies have been made of since The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. (Actually, it goes all the way back to D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley, but this is a short review, not a lecture.)

Throughout, the pace is fast, the action is flamboyant, and Cassell is terrific. Yes, the film glamorizes him and pays little attention to his nastier moments, like kidnapping a cripple. But for fast, violent pulp escapism, you could do worse.

Part II, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 finishes the story in an equally lively style and becomes more complicated as the character comes to believe his own press clippings. Taken together, the two films are just a terrific gangster story.

(113 and 134 min. Rated R for graphic violence, sexual material, language.)

Books by Mike Mayo