A few weeks ago, I was scouring Netflix when I came across the two-part 2008 French gangster biopic Mesrine. Mesrine chronicles the life of arguably France’s most notorious modern day criminal, Jacques Mesrine, an anti-hero akin to John Dillinger. The film is split into two parts, Mesrine: Killer Instinct (L’instinct de mort) and, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (L’ennemi public n1). It is meant to be watched as one 4 hour epic, but on Netflix it is split into two films. It is directed and co-written by Jean-François Richet, whose only U.S. credit is directing Assault on Precinct 13, the 2005 remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 film starring Laurence Fisburne and Ethan Hawke. Part 1 is based on Mesrine’s autobiographical book L’instinct De Mort, while part 2 details Mesrine’s criminal career following his escape from prison. While a bit messy, Mesrine is certainly entertaining and while in my opinion the first part really outshines the second, it’s certainly worth a watch if you have a long attention span and 4 hours to spare.
Just as Saturday’s Movie of the Day featured an underrated actor in Brendan Gleeson, Mesrine features the oft-underrated French actor Vincent Cassel in the title role. Cassel’s career has been extremely distinguished but in my opinion, his best roles have been in French films. I haven’t seen La Haine yet but his performance has been critically praised and he was nominated for a César Award for Best Actor, the French equivalent of an Oscar. In 2000, he starred alongside Jean Reno in Crimson Rivers and in the very next year his role in Sur mes lèvres (English title: Read My Lips) was nominated for another César Award for Best Actor. In 2002, he starred alongside his real-life wife Monica Bellucci in Gaspar Noé’s experimental film Irréversible. Irréversible was presented in reverse chronological order and while the idea was original, the novelty wore off quickly. In the end it came off a bit gimmicky and just didn’t do enough to enhance the power of the story to justify its use. I found myself wanting to like it a lot more than I did. With that said, Cassel’s performance was enthralling and his portrayal of a vengeful boyfriend was absorbing and at times, even haunting. His American credits include Ice Age, Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen, a brilliant turn as the unstable Kirill in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, and most recently as the ballerina instructor in Black Swan. Out of the movie’s I’ve seen of his though, Mesrine is his crowning achievement. He is absolutely riveting, his intensity comes through in every scene and his performance is truly masterful. He deservedly garnered the César Award for Best Actor his role as well as numerous other accolades.
As I mentioned earlier, I found part 1 to be the far superior film. It was much more character-driven than the second which relied more on action to carry itself. Some people prefer action but I favor the first part which developed Mesrine very well and truly delved into his shortcomings and complexities. Part 1 was based on Mesrine’s book and part 2 seemed to lack the storytelling ability of the first film. I found the movies to be messy and in a way a bit unconnected. Richet’s transitions were interesting as he didn’t seem to document any time passing (i.e. “Two years later”) and just jumped from scene to scene. While it certainly helped with the pacing and kept the movie going, in the end it resulted in a product that was slightly disorganized. In the same vein, the transition between both parts of the film is missing and time elapses between the end of the first part and the beginning of the second without the viewer being informed as to what happened. As a whole I felt the first part was a bit more focused, the second wandered a bit and the first part was paced much better and as a result, towards the end of part 2 my interest began to wane. I found the movies to be very good but not great as there were a number of faults. Still, not enough could be made of Cassel’s powerhouse performance. He had such a charisma and was so captivating that his role makes Mesrine well worth your time.