The Seventies were good years for charismatic French gangster Jacques Mesrine. Except, of course, for the last five minutes.
Mesrine tells us his story in two parts: Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One. Each film runs about two hours. It’s quite a ride.
Jacques Mesrine, in an outstanding performance by Vincent Cassel, captured the French imagine in the Seventies. He was born in 1936 to middle-class parents, went to good schools as a boy, demonstrated a taste for violence and probably found his criminal career in Algeria as a count-insurgency paratrooper and, so it was said, killer of prisoners. Whatever the truth, Mesrine, back in France and out of the army, became a full-time criminal specializing in bank robberies and burglaries. And what a criminal. He was shrewd, unpredictable, violent one moment, playful with his daughter the next. He’d rob a bank with a partner, then notice another bank down the block and run over and rob it, too. Other criminals learned to cross him, or just mispronounce his name, at their risk. During his career he managed to kidnap two millionaires from their country mansions, one in Canada and the other in France. Both times he carried it off with bravado and a crazy kind of belief that what he’d planned would work. Occasionally he’d be caught, sent to prison and then escape. When he landed in La Sante, a tough, maximum-security French prison located in Paris, he escaped again…in broad daylight…in a mixture of audacity, luck and determination.
Mesrine seemed to think he was invincible. He also believed he’d die young, not the least of his contradictions. As Cassel plays him, he is a figure a person can’t keep from watching. Cassel’s Mesrine isn’t handsome, but a dangerous, unpredictable, confident and, at times, charming gangster who has little trouble finding women to share his bed and partners who, initially, anyway, join his schemes. As his notoriety grew, so did his ego and his sense of injustice. He gave interviews to the press and even wrote an (unreliable) autobiography. He killed a few people along the way, not always fellow gangsters. The French police were fit to be tied. And then we come to the last five minutes of Part Two.
The two movies are episodic at times. They jump from Paris to here and there, including the Canary Islands and Quebec, following Mesrine’s unpredictable criminal life. Both movies are well cast, with actors who look as tough as Cassel. Gerard Depardieu in Part One plays Guido, a kind of mentor to Mesrine. He almost steals the show. Ludovine Sagnier as Sylvie Jeanjacquot, Mesrine’s last woman, is as fine an actress as she is good-looking.
Cassel, however, is what makes these movies. Like Belmondo and Bogart, he qualifies as a dominating male lead actor despite his considerably less than handsome looks. Style, confidence and talent – plus a camera that loves you – don’t need chiseled profiles.
Remember, the next time you’re in a smoke-filled Paris bar and you think you see him at a table, it’s pronounced “may-reen.” Good luck.
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About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer (Charley2)
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more