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  Mesrine: Killer Instinct A Life Of Crime
Year: 2008
Director: Jean-François Richet
Stars: Vincent Cassel, Cécile De France, Gérard Depardieu, Gilles Lellouche, Roy Dupuis, Elena Anaya, Michel Duchaussoy, Myriam Boyer, Florence Thomassin, Abdelhafid Metalsi, Gilbert Sicotte, Deano Clavet, Mustapha Abourachid, Ludivine Sagnier
Genre: Thriller, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: The late seventies and Jaques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is cautiously walking along a street to meet his girlfriend Sylvia (Ludivine Sagnier) who is walking her dog, and when he does they fetch a suitcase from a nearby building and get into their car, driving off. As they enter the traffic, a truck driver cuts in front of them, but Jacques lets it go, not realising they have stumbled onto a trap... Flashback to 1959 and Mesrine was a soldier in Algiers, the first time he ever killed someone when his superiors who were interrogating a terrorist ordered him to shoot the man's sister. He could not bring himself to do it, and shot the prisoner instead - who would have thought the authorities would have set him onto his path of crime?

Jacques Mesrine was a notorious French gangster who was better known in French-speaking territories than he was elsewhere. Before he died, he penned his autobiography while in prison, and that formed the basis for a double bill of movies which extensively covered his life, a two part work which was much acclaimed, not least due to the superb performance of Cassel in the lead role, turning on the charm here but not allowiing us to be blinded to the fact that this man was dangerous and foolhardy in the extreme. The director holding this together was Jean-François Richet, then best known internationally for his Assault on Precinct 13 remake, but showing far more inspiration with this.

That said, it does take a while for the film to hit its stride, and for too much of the time there's a shapeless quality to the drama as the script hits all the relevant marks in Mesrine's life without much of a sense of cohesion. In these scenes, the actors tend to carry the interest as the all-too familar clichés of the crime movie, especially the true life crime movie, are well to the fore here. This means we get the early days of Mesrine's career in lawlessness where he joins up with Gérard Depardieu's gang boss Guido as one of his underlings, then falls in love with a Spanish girl, Sofia (Elena Anaya), he meets on holiday, then gets further involved in robbery which lands him in prison for a spell...

You get the idea. Richet doesn't go overboard with the period detail as we move from the late fifties to the early seventies in the space of just under two hours, so the soundtrack is not littered with memory-jogging pop hits of the day and neither is the imagery reliant on pop culture from the eras it depicts. Indeed, if it were not for the moustaches and sideburns on the men and the fashion the characters sport, you might have been forgiven not being able to pin down the precise time this was set, particularly if you had never heard of Mesrine before. It's a tribute to the filmmakers that the human side of things tends to eclipse the historical, but for too long you're wanting some thrills in this thriller.

They don't gloss over Mesrine's corrupt nature, as while we can see he has a tender side - he's very loyal to the women in his life - his darker aspect always gets the better of him. Take the sequence where he gets his revenge on the Algerian pimp who beat up his ex-girlfriend: we can see that he feels justice should be done, but Mesrine's so racist about it and eventually so murderous, we cannot be entirely sympathetic with him. That's not to mention the part where he attacks his wife in a rage, in front of his children too - no wonder she flees. All this is much of a muchness until he ends up in a Quebec prison, where after a few months' torture and sensory deprivation he is allowed to mix with the other prisoners and hatches an escape plan. Finally the film springs to life, with a blossoming tension befitting a proper thriller, leaving us keen to see what happens next. Music by Eloi Painchaud.

Aka: L'instinct de mort.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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