Directed by: Jean-Francois Richet || Produced by: Thomas Langmann, Andre Rouleau
Screenplay by: Abdel Raouf Dafri, Jean-Francois Richet || Starring: Vincent Cassel, Ludivine Sagnier, Michel Duchaussoy, Cecile De France
Music by: Eloi Painchaud, Marco Beltrami, Marcus Trumpp || Cinematography: Robert Gantz || Editing by: Eloi Painchaud, Bill Pankow, Herve Schneid || Country: France, Canada || Language: French
Running Time: 246 minutes
Originally released as two separate films in 2008, but like The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), technically the same narrative spread over multiple feature-length pictures, Mesrine has been touted as French cinema’s version of the American Scarface (1983). Mesrine’s scope is a bit too ambitious for its own good, tracing the entire adult criminal life of infamous gangster, Jacques Mesrine, which stretched across France, Canada, and briefly in the United States. The story loses some excitement and drags by the second feature, but given the colorful and action-packed career of its figure of study, the 246-minute adventure fleshes out a wealth of violent autobiographical source material. Moreover, Vincent Cassel does a great job as the charismatic and tenacious titular outlaw.
The first act of the biopic, L’instinct de mort (literally, “Instinct for Death,” frequently translated and marketed in English as “Killer Instinct“) is the better of the two, plotting the action at just the right times, and orchestrating a nail-biting finale with a failed siege on a Quebec prison. The transition from France to Canada also adds some variety in backdrop and helps temper the narrative’s pacing. This is also the part where the “flash-forward” footage of Mesrine’s eventual public assassination by the Parisian police is used to its greatest effect. We already know that the rebellious, violent criminal will meet his end in a fittingly bloody, violent execution right from the start, but the movie does a good job of making us want to know exactly how his life leads him to this ultimate doom.
Part two, L’ennemi public № 1 (Public Enemy No. 1), falters more in terms of keeping the action tight and the story at a brisk pace. It’s interesting to watch how Mesrine’s personal and social agenda’s evolve in the second half of the narrative, but much of the dialogue and private media interviews could have been cut down. Considerable portions of Public Enemy feel like they’re just treading water.
The other major problem with Mesrine’s story, besides the pacing problems in the second half, is that none of the supporting characters, including all of the gangster’s many girlfriends, are memorable. They all blur together as slightly different versions of the same pretty face, and Mesrine’s criminal accomplices, though some are played by veteran actors, have little material to work with and almost no development.
Mesrine ultimately runs on the strength of its lead character and Cassel’s sublime performance. Giving credit where credit is due, the man is likable from the first scene to the last, and his trademark charm and vicious gangster style go together like chocolate and peanut butter (or caramel, or whatever you prefer). His arc is clear and develops over the entire four-hour narrative. All the action scenes are intense as well.
Though probably not deserving of such a detailed focus, Mesrine is an entertaining and interesting roller coaster-ride that captures the rebellious spirit of the best outlaw films. It’s glamorous and flashy when it wants to be, yet it always stay true to its hard-nosed, violent nature.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Mesrine’s story runs on its well-paced action, and Vincent Cassel excels as the charismatic gangster, always seen with a women around his arm and staying one step ahead of the boys in blue. The film boasts intense shootouts, heists, and prison escapes, which keep the action varied and always have you guessing what lengths Cassel will go to next to stay at large.
— However… the pacing drags during the second half as Mesrine’s endless girlfriends, heists, and prison escapes grow repetitive; the extensive supporting cast is forgettable and underwritten.
? Only a fool would get arrested by the Belgian police!