Plot: The true story of notorious French bank robber Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), who, throughout the sixties and seventies, was public enemy number one in France, and escaped jail four times.
Review: MESRINE is the gangster epic PUBLIC ENEMIES wanted to be. A two-part masterwork, MESRINE opened in Europe back in 2008 (netting star Vincent Cassel the French equivalent of an Oscar- the César), but is only now making its way to North America. I was lucky enough to catch both parts of the MESRINE saga at the Fantasia film festival, and for over four hours, MESRINE had me by the balls!
Supposedly, both parts are being released two weeks apart as individual films, and even at Fantasia, they were shown separately, albeit- back to back. Part one is the more action-heavy installment. Titled KILLER INSTINCT, it traces Mesrine’s origins, from his time spent learning to kill as a soldier in the Algerian War, to his eventual exile to Montreal at the end of the sixties. Right from the start, it was obvious MESRINE was going to be a film to remember, with director Jean-Francois Richet (who helmed the ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 remake) pulling out all the stops.
The film begins with a Brian de Palma esque sequence using multi screens, showing the moments leading up to Mesrine’s eventual assassination by French Police. From there, the film unfolds as a flashback. We see as Mesrine dabbles in crime, does some time, falls in love and tries to go straight, before eventually turning into the famed criminal he became. For Mesrine, his adventure really starts once fleeing France for Montreal, with his girlfriend (Cecile de France). The two, after briefly going straight, end up kidnapping their elderly employer, before leading cops on an interstate chase that ends with them getting named in Arizona.
Mesrine ends up in a brutal Quebec prison, where he teams up with FLQ (a terrorist cell dedicated to the independence of Quebec that was active in the seventies, and eventually culminated in the October Crisis- which led to a brief period of martial law in Montreal) member, Jean Paul-Mercier (played by Montreal superstar Roy Dupuis). Under Mercier’s tutelage, Mesrine reinvents himself as a master criminal, and the two cut a swath through Montreal. The film climaxes in a brutal shootout featuring Mesrine, and Mercier returning to their old prison to rescue some of their inmate buddies. This extended (and true) action scene is like something out of HEAT, and a truly show-stopping set piece. Unlike a lot of other action flicks, the gunfights here are not overly stylized, but instead a shot in a grittier style that reminds one of the great Don Siegel action flicks (like CHARLEY VARRICK or the first DIRTY HARRY) of the seventies.
The tone changes somewhat in the second, longer film- PUBLIC ENEMY NO.1, which features Mesrine’s return to France, and his eventual transformation into a strange type of cult hero. Once he gains infamy, Mesrine’s ego begins to run amok, as he tries to re-invent himself into an outlaw revolutionary- leading to his downfall. While the first film was a lean, mean action flick, the second part is more darkly comedic, but just as effective.
Put them together, and you have an operatic French gangster masterpiece, that would be truly unbelievable if the story wasn’t (mostly) true. In the lead, Cassel gives a career defining performance on the level of Al Pacino in SCARFACE. Mesrine’s a complicated, three-dimensional figure, and despite some of his insane, blood-thirsty acts, he remains an essentially likable guy. Considering he’s in almost every scene of this four hour opus, this is a major accomplishment for Cassel, and truly the best role he’s ever had.
Also noteworthy is the strong French supporting cast. While this is Cassel’s show all the way, a lot of the biggest stars in France turn up in meaty supporting roles, including Gerard Dépardieu as Mesrine’s gangster mentor. In part two, Matthieu Almaric (of QUANTUM OF SOLACE) pops up as a master escapist who helps Mesrine in a particularly elaborate escape.
Despite the considerable running time, MESRINE is never boring, even if taken in one big, four hour plus sitting. I truly loved this flick, and along with INCEPTION, ANIMAL KINGDOM, THE KILLER INSIDE ME and TOY STORY 3, stands as one of the year’s best films. I highly recommend seeing it, especially if you’re a big fan of similar gangster epics like GOODFELLAS, CASINO, or SCARFACE.