Rare French Fare
By Amy Nicholson
After a summer of entertaining yet mostly unspectacular films, it’s fair to wonder if anyone can produce anything truly original.
The answer to that can be found at your local art-house circuit showing two, two-hour-plus films titled Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1. The two films are joined to tell the story of Jacques Mesrine, a real-life French bank robber who became the most notorious criminal in that nation’s modern history.
Vincent Cassel’s astonishing performance as the Gallic gangster conjures memories of both Al Pacino’s and Robert DeNiro’s wildest film moments.
Killer Instinct is the first of the pair, though so much high-speed insanity unfolds on the screen in each film that you can probably understand the second film without having seen the first.
In both movies, there’s a bank robbery, car chase, beating or shootout literally every few minutes. This at least guarantees that you won’t get bored reading subtitles, but then, every third word in some scenes is some variation of the seven dirty words that you can’t say on television, so they are easy enough for any child to read quickly.
The Mesrine films get right down to business, with Killer Instinct kicking off with French police wasting our anti-hero after surprising him while tied up in traffic.
The story then whiplashes back more than 20 years, to when Mesrine was a cold-blooded interrogator for the French Foreign Legion, before he suddenly went rogue without explanation.
From there, it’s a mix of well-staged, fast-paced and jaw-dropping action that alternates with emotional scenes—like Mesrine sneaking into a hospital disguised as a doctor to visit his dying dad, or fighting back tears while speaking with his daughter as she visits him in prison for the first time after 15 years.
Mesrine literally defines the term anti-hero, and these movies are not for the easily offended or squeamish. The filmmakers want viewers to root for him much of the time, yet they might just depict the guy shoving a gun into his wife’s mouth during a fight or stripping the clothes off a journalist and beating him to death for writing an article about him.
But if you have a strong stomach and don’t mind manic pacing, terrific performances and moral complexity, the Mesrine films are rare fare for American theaters that should not be missed.