By Armond White
Killer Instinct, the first of the two-part French gangster film Mesrine, finally opens in the U.S. following a highly praised home turf reception. But it also has the misfortune of coming right after the Anthology Film Archives’ compelling William Lustig program of crime movies and what Variety calls “actioners,” where zero-prestige works by Larry Cohen, Henri Verneuil and Giuliano Montaldo raised the B-movie crime film to insightful or, at least, pleasurable and personally-expressive heights. Mesrine doesn’t measure up.
From its opening epigraph (“All films are part fiction. No film can recreate the complexity of a human life”), this biopic of the Algerian War veteran Jacques Mesrine—who became a publicity-seeking thief, kidnapper and murderer throughout the 1960s and ’70s—never makes the necessary connection between social outlawry and political rebellion like the films Lustig tastily programmed. Screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri uses the same specious political/racial parallels as in his script for A Prophet, the fraudulent, bleeding-heart, Muslim-immigrant jailhouse import. Dafri’s screenwriting specialty combines “actioner” and “guilter.”
Dafri botches the balance of genre excitement and social observation that are the key to Larry Cohen’s creative genius—not just in the psychological complexity of The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, but particularly in his movies of the Blaxploitation era—like Black Caesar, Bone and Hell Up In Harlem—that understood the connection between testosterone aggression and corporate ambition. Dafri’s thesis that Mesrine’s criminal spirit was formed by his experience in the Algerian occupation, destroying his moral boundaries then warping his sense of justice and citizenship, becomes a facile dramatic ploy—a mere excuse for sensationalism.
Because Dafri aims speciously higher, imitating big-budget gangster epics The Godfather and GoodFellas—which have problematically entered history as nationalist narratives—he never zeroes in on his protagonist’s compulsions as Cohen’s astute classics did. The main difference between Black Caesar and The Godfather (both 1972) lay in Cohen understanding the political moment, while Coppola aimed to mythify the country. Heroizing Mesrine cynically represents Dafri’s vision of France’s corruption. (“De Galle killed us,” complains a vet-turned-crook.) Yet this sociological pretense—the essential folly of the gangster epic—is morally unprincipled. Dafri and director Jean-François Richet seek the audience’s enjoyment of Mesrine’s heinous exploits—neither Cohen’s economic explanation nor the repulsion that Coppola eventually arrived at for Michael Corleone.
Vincent Cassel, a French Adrien Brody, struts through the role of Mesrine as a peculiarly French, racist-bred, anti-Algerian thug. Resentful of his class, the state and his meek father, an embittered snake hisses beneath Mesrine’s insolent grin. It’s an actorly combination of bravado and romanticism similar to Tom Hardy’s more complexly imagined criminal biopic Bronson. However, Gerard Depardieu as Mesrine’s treacherous, openly racist mentor creates more believable menace.
Richet indulges a mug’s fetish, using a gallery of macho portraits (Deano Clavet, Gerard Lanvin, Gille Lelouche, Roy Dupuis) to depict Mesrine’s associates. When Mesrine escapes justice, goes to Canada and joins the Quebec separatist movement to commit more crimes under cover of political imperative (which Dafri does not articulate), the film shifts into an inadvertently comic crime-spree. A kidnapping episode that recalls The Honeymoon Killers is so beside the point of Mesrine’s Gallic impudence it exposes Dafri and Richet’s basic lack of seriousness.
In Part Two, subtitled Public Enemy No. 1, Mesrine keeps its epic length, yet gradually loses its cinematic ambition to a mode of mindless TV excitation. The amount of gunplay is so excessive (lots of car windshields shattering) it verges on Michael Mannerisms—which in their flimsiness are essentially TV aesthetics. It’s possible that audiences have gotten used to this (from the Miami Vice and Crime Story series to the HBO gimmick of broadcasting The Sopranos in letterbox format), but Mesrine’s episodic style
Only the minimal characterizations of Mesrine’s various women (Cécile de France, Elena Anaya, Ludivine Sagnier) departs from gangster drama clichés—specifiying their disposable role in the thug-hero’s life. The sequence where Mesrine puts in a gun in his wife’s mouth and threatens her (“I’ll always choose my friends over you”) shows the heartlessness The Sopranos sentimentalized. It’s the only moment to admit Mesrine’s psychopathology. Richet and Dafri mostly settle for a grandiose idealization of a rebel’s rise and fall.
Mesrine summarizes his own legacy: “There are no heroes in crime, only men who choose to live outside the law.” Yet the film’s mythologizing flashback structure isn’t revealing or scrutinizing like the similar framework of John Boorman’s more efficient crime biopic The General. Instead, due to TV-quality repetitiveness and pseudo-political claptrap, Mesrine’s attempt to rival Hollywood crime movies’ magnum force—either through B-movie precision or A-movie elaborateness—fails.
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