Written by:
Beverly Berning
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Directed by Jean-François Richet
Written by Jean-François Richet and Abdel Raouf Dafri
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Gérard Depardieu, Cécile de France, Roy Dupuis, Gilles Lellouche, Elena Anaya, Ludivine Sagnier
Run Time: 113 minutes (Part 1); 134 minutes (Part 2)
MPAA Rating:  Rated R

Known as The Man of a Thousand Faces, French gangster Jacques Mesrine remade himself over and over, captivating the Gallic nation with a stream of bank robberies, brazen kidnappings and audaciously daring prison escapes during the 60s and 70s, before he was finally gunned down in 1979 by the French police.  The notorious outlaw now gets a four-hour biopic to reclaim his legendary status, an event the publicity hound Mesrine would have thoroughly enjoyed.

The four-hour film is divided into two parts of equal length, to be released separately.  Part One, called Mesrine: Killer Instinct, comes out August 27 at Landmark theaters in San Francisco and Berkeley, and the second part, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1, follows a week later.

After a brief prologue showing Mesrine’s death (the first of a perpetual series of grisly scenes preceded by tense buildups), the two films take us through Mesrine’s entire criminal career, starting from the beginnings of his propensity for violence as a French soldier during the Algerian war, and ending with his assassination on the streets of Paris by a truck-load of rifle-armed special crime unit officers.

The first film, which takes us up to 1969, introduces us to the charisma and effrontery of a man who could woo the ladies and make them cry out in ecstasy with the same bold determination as he could smash a glass in a man’s face or twist a knife in his belly.  Mesrine simply could not take no for an answer, and it’s this morally unfettered resolve that made him so alluring…and so deadly. Imagine living your life without fear of death, and the kind of freedom that must bring.  This is how Mesrine lived; it is what allowed him the reckless abandon to blithely saunter into the mansions of millionaires and kidnap them in broad daylight, and it is what fueled his daring prison escapes.  With that kind of self-assurance, no wonder women found him irresistible.

That degree of irresistibility and cheek is not easy to convey, but French actor Vincent Cassel, as Mesrine, delivers in spades.  He gives an astonishing performance, playing Mesrine with a perfect balance of charm and swagger, a bad ass with smooth moves.  A popular actor in his native France (Americans might recognize him as the French con man in Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen), Cassel always seemed to me to have a wimpy face and a weasel-like air, but as Jacques Mesrine, Cassel is a force of nature.  He is in practically every scene of this epic extravaganza, and you just can’t get enough of him.  His sexuality literally jumps off the screen, especially in the first movie, when Cassel is still muscular and frisky as the younger Mesrine.  Cassel says that he put on more than 20 kilos over the course of the movie, and you see him getting hunkier by the minute.  The extra weight actually makes him sexier.  Only when a potbelly appears did I finally wince at the poundage, bereaving the graceful physicality that had kept me engaged even when the constant barrage of bullets started weighing me down.

That is what annoyed me about this movie in the end-all that gunfire, the bloodshed, the fists pounding flesh, all set to a pounding soundtrack, and all seeming to have no real purpose other than the glorification of violence.  Of course, this is a movie about a notorious criminal who himself boasted having killed more than 40 people in his 1973 pseudo-memoir “Instinct de Mort,” but director Jean-François Richet seems to spend most of the film’s four hours assiduously recreating the gunfights and the chase scenes in a plotless jump from one adrenaline rush to the next.  By the end of the first hour, you realize that, perhaps like Mesrine himself, you’re in this more for the thrill of the ride than any real underlying search for understanding of what fueled the pathology.  There are suggestions here and there-Mesrine’s stint as a soldier in Algeria perhaps helped to forge his amoral backbone, for example-but these seem to get lost in the wake of his almost primordial instinct for aggression.  And Richet’s direction intensifies the thrills by stringing them back to back, leaving the years Mesrine spends in prison a mere footnote.

In an interview, Vincent Cassel spoke of the public’s almost “sick” attraction to Jacques Mesrine, dubbed Public Enemy No. 1 by the police and treated with almost idolatrous fascination by the press during his final years on the lam in France.  I couldn’t help but wonder if that sick fascination is perhaps what makes this four-hour film so absorbing.  Jacques Mesrine’s life is certainly not glorified in this biopic, but there is a strange underhanded affirmation of gall within it, no pun intended.  Cassel’s sexy performance only adds to the feeling that Mesrine’s uncanny ability to cheat death on his own terms matters more than the lives he cheated.

Richet takes some pains to place Mesrine’s impact on the French zeitgeist into some cultural perspective, playing news programs about the terrorist activities of the Red Brigade and the Baader-Meinhof gang that plagued Europe at the time.  Mesrine even attempted to compete with such groups in his search for celebrity, spouting anti-establishment rants to the press about getting at the system by emptying bank vaults. Were the French fooled by those postures?  I doubt it.  Rather, it was just good, old-fashioned idolizing of an outlaw.  As for Mesrine, he took his cue from Guido (a massive Gerard Depardieu) the mobster who took him under his wing as a young thug, and who berates him for not shooting to kill.  It’s the law of the jungle, Guido sneers at him, and only then to each his own morals.

Beverly Berning

Mesrine: The Killer instinct opens at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley on August 27.

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 opens at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley on September 3.

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