Meet Jacques Mesrine: The most notorious French gangster/bank robber in history, who somehow seemed to escape the fame anywhere other than his native homeland. Being a charismatic bloke, he is best described as France’s own John Dillinger, yet, Mesrine, who practiced kidnapping on the side as well, was responsible for the deaths of approximately forty people during his long career (nearly four times as many as Dillinger). In director Jean-Franà§ois Richet’s first installment to his two part “Mesrine” series, we are introduced to the man of the hour. There is little time spent on back-story, besides from a scene in which we see Jacques as a soldier in the French army. However, in this one pivotal scene, Jacques is forced with the decision to either follow his superior’s orders to execute the wife of a suspected terrorist or shoot the actual suspect in the case. Besides this scene’s importance in explaining Mesrine’s hatred for Arabs, it also shows that the man isn’t afraid of bending the rules. His fellow soldiers are conformists and he simply does not care for authority (which is furthered explained in the second installment Mesrine: Public Enemy #1) and thus he takes the shot to kill the suspect and spares his significant other from an untimely death.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct begins in an unexpected fashion. In the first moments of the film, we are presented with Jacques’ last moments in life. He enters his car and seconds later, is faced with a rapid burst of machine gun fire from the automobile in front of him. Of course from that point, we flashback to the very roots of Mesrine’s criminal career. Following the war, Mesrine returns back to his parent’s home. But there are no smiling faces, in fact, they pressure him to get an “honest” job. Jacques is explicitly disgusted with his father’s lack of courage and his conformist ways when it comes to his marriage — which arguably is the reason for Mesrine’s lack of respect for rules and laws.
But hard labor just isn’t in Mesrine’s taste and he begins to commit petty crimes before upgrading to a henchman for a Parisian drug lord by the name of Guido, played by Oscar-nominated Gérard Depardieu (who remains so taken by the role that he’s nearly unrecognizable). From there on out, Mesrine quickly climbs up the criminal ladder, however, he spends no time in building an empire — no, he is a one man army.
But the increasingly egoistical Mesrine meets a woman by the name of Sofia (Elena Anaya), who later bares his children. Mesrine is lousy as both a father and a husband and following a stint in jail and a promise to Sofia that he’d relinquish his role as law-breaker, he sticks a gun in her mouth. He proclaims that he shouldn’t be forced to choose between her and his brothers in arms, because he’d choose them over her anytime.
There is just so much story in Mesrine: Killer Instinct that it’s no surprise that the “Mesrine” series is split into two parts, which are nearly similar in length (and also quality). Just the first installment alone covers the histories of a plethora of important characters and events in the Mesrine mythology, of which includes Jeanne Schneider (Cécile De France), one of Mesrine’s many lovers following his fallout with Sofia, who not only indulges Mesrine in passionate sex, but also involves herself in his professional life — as his sidekick of sorts. On top of that, the film also addresses Mesrine’s attempt to free the prisoners who aided in his escape from a high-secure prison.
However, whatever problems that the film faces in the realm of storytelling is easily forgiven simply because of Vincent Cassel’s performance as the man of the hour. His on-screen presence perfectly captures the essence of the entire character. He is incredibly charming when need be — such as when the time calls for seducing a woman or speaking to media (Mesrine is similar to Dillinger in this aspect), and brutal when it comes to his enemies — showing a face of pure, unadulterated and uncontainable rage. Cassel also pulls off Mesrine’s emotional and physically struggle during the scenes in which Mesrine is incarcerated and tortured at the Quebec Province Special Corrections Unit. The “Mesrine” series will surely prove to be a real driving force for the rest of Cassel’s career — which promises to be one full of achievement.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct is also surprisingly technical. The production values are used excellently and there isn’t a moment where one scene or act is shot less competently or is edited below the standards of the rest of the film.
Interestingly enough, the film’s opening caption is “No film can recreate the complexity of human life. But each with its point of view.” Of course this saves Richet and screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri from facing any serious implications on either their almost glamorization of the gangster lifestyle or from any claims of fictionalization. Of course, the “Mesrine” series is based on Mesrine’s own memoir, which may or may not contain fabricated events.
Overall, Mesrine: Killer Instinct does an excellent job at introducing to us Mesrine, a man plagued with his intoxication with wealth and control. Disguised as a typical biopic, this film exceeds any expectations and not only features engrossing storytelling but also a couple of entertaining action sequences for those seeking a healthy dosage of discharged firearms and speeding vehicles. This makes the film well worth seeking out. However be warned, those who sit through Mesrine: Killer Instinct will surely be hungry for more, which of course means that you’ll have to pay for another ticket in order to see the stunning conclusion to one of the best gangster films in recent memory.