Tuesday, 16 February 2010

It's Pronounced MAY-reen

Don't you just love when a film you've been keen to see for ages, turns out to be every bit as good as you hope it'll be? It's been a rare occurrence lately- Paranormal Activity, Daybreakers, Death Note and a few others have turned out to be huge stinking letdowns, and quite frankly it's left me feeling more than a little bit scunnered. Praise be then, that this most depressing trend has been bucked by one film (well, two, really) I've been dying to see for MONTHS.... the sprawling French gangster epic, Mesrine.

Given that I profess to be such an avid fan of a) gangster films, b) foreign cinema and c) Vincent Cassell, I'm more than a little ashamed that I haven't seen Mesrine until now. I don't even know why I didn't see it in the cinema... Something along the lines of "Oooh, I've got no money", I'd imagine. Hence why I took the plunge and did something I never usually do- and bought it pretty much as soon as it was released. I know, I know, I'll regret paying the £15 when it's reduced in a month or so, but I just HAD to have it. And what a film it is....!
I've been waiting for the perfect opportunity to watch it, and what better than a sick day? Nothing else to divert my attention and the one time when I can feel truly justified in lying in my bed watching endless DVDs. I even managed to keep up with the subtitles, despite being up to my eyeballs in co-codamol. SCORE!

The life and crimes of infamous French gangster Jacques Mesrine is told across two films- Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One.
Right from the beginning, the film is a dizzying ride through Mesrine's anarchic, brutal (yet curiously cinematic) lifestyle. Killer Instinct opens with a split-screen sequence in which a slightly tubby, haggard looking Vincent Cassel driving through the streets of 1979 Paris with his girlfriend. Suddenly, they are ambushed by a hit squad who fall out the back of a lorry- and instantly we are transported back to 1959, to Mesrine's time in the military. His violent anarchic streak is first revealed here, when he executes an Algerian rebel after being ordered to kill said rebel's sister. Upon his return, he moves back with his parents, who try and set him up with a regular job- but he's more interested in hooking up with his old cronies, including mentor Guido (Gerard Depardieu).
He falls into his old life with ease; his charm and charisma mean he fits easily into the criminal underworld and is never short of pretty ladies fawning over him.

Both the crime thriller and the two-part biopic have been big successes in recent cinema history- comparisons to Public Enemies and Che are inevitable but Killer Instinct is more brutal, fun and engaging than these two. Unlike them, there is no in-depth backstory (short sequence in Algiers aside). There's nothing to explain why Mesrine is who he is, no tedious rags to riches empire-building, no slow burning character study- the film never slows down until Mesrine himself is in prison in Canada. Even then, we're waiting for him to make his daring escape and go back to his whirlwind of crime. It's a dizzying, enthralling cycle of bloody violence, crime sprees and prison sentences, with allies, lovers and even Mesrine's appearance changing from one sequence to the next. Even his children, whom he fathers with first wife Sofia and eventually leaves with his parents, are played by different actors each time we see them. The film rarely pauses for breath; much like with Public Enemies we are shown how intoxicating it can be to live outside the law. The frantic use of music to heighten tension is applied to maximum effect here- even over the title menu, it promises danger, excitement, and a delicious hint of what to expect.

Killer Instinct leaves off with later love Jeanne finishing her sentence and returning to France, while Mesrine is declared Public Enemy Number 1 in both Canada (where he is arrested, and later escapes). The second helping, also entitled Public Enemy No 1, sees Mesrine, physically heavier and visibly older looking, and being arrested once again. Cue a fantastic courtroom exit with a contraband weapon and a smuggled judge- honestly, the phrase "too outrageous to be true" was never truer than when applied to these films. He dashes through France with yet another new lithe and exciting Cecile. After amassing a small fortune, the pair go on a glamourous sex and spending spree, through Paris and London; Jacques brazenly driving in plain view through Paris declaring there not to be a cop in sight. Yes, truly the life of a gangster is a fast-paced and desirable one, full of flash clothes, flash cars and even flashier women.

Still, what goes up must come down, as the old adage goes. And it's a mighty crash for ol' Jacques; we see the aftermath of the threatened ambush at the start of Killer Instinct, so we know ultimately he doesn't get away clean. In a strange way though, we still kind of hope he does. And even though we do know, it's still an incredibly tense moment when the film comes full circle and we arrive at that fated red light in 1979. It's an explosive end to a life spent constantly on the edge, although there are some truly touching moments too- when Mesrine visits his dying father in hospital, knowing he can't come and see him again, it shows emotional depth to the character and provides a tender lull in the break-neck action.

Neither of the films portray him as a perfect character either; it's not all suave charm and killer charisma. Violent outbursts towards both his first wife, and later Cecile, show that he is an unpredictably violent character, one whose fatal flaw is his own ego, and the sense that he is above the law. It makes the character feel more rounded, rather than just a gun totin' flash Harry who is all style over substance. Vincent Cassel has never been better, and he's been no slouch so far. After La Haine, Irreversible and Eastern Promises showed excellent promise, real grit and integrity, the Mesrine saga showcases what a truly brilliant actor he is. How he isn't a bigger star is beyond me. (yeah, I know, I am biased slightly, but he's really awesome. If you don't believe me you'll just have to watch it). The supporting players are also outstanding: Gerard Depardieu is so immersed in his role he's unrecognisable, I had to double-check the credits when I saw who he played. Cecile de France as Killer Instinct counterpart Jeanne is the perfect partner as they tote across North America living the fast life and making money on the run. Brilliant, brutal, bold and beautiful- I actually can't recommend these films enough. It's a real shame so many people complain about reading subtitles- Mesrine easily outclasses English-language films of a similar genre, and it has way more fun in doing so. GET IT WATCHED.


  1. After writing this blog I put on the song "Livin' on the Edge" by Aerosmith...Is outlaw a viable career option anymore, or are we all about terrorism and bams getting popped in car parks?

  2. I didn't read this in case of OMGSPOILERS but I really do need to beg you to lend me these, I would LOVE to see them!

  3. Consider it done, I'll bring them in on Friday, I don't even need to make you promise to watch both because as soon as the first one's done, the second will be straight on. There isn't really much to spoil per se, but yeah, better to wait and soak up the awesomeness unbiased.