Jacques be nimble

Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Public Enemy #1

This is not a nice man.

This is not a nice man.

Rated 4.0

The idea of a 1970s French desperado sounds like some kind of Saturday Night Live skit falling flat, but there was such a man, and his career was no joke. Jacques Mesrine was essentially the John Dillinger of France, but with cheesy ’70s duds instead of the stylish Depression-era wardrobe. Before he was shot to pieces in a 1979 police ambush, Mesrine (pronounced “meh-reen”) ran the cops a merry chase in France, Canada and the United States with his bank robberies, burglaries, prison breaks, kidnappings and (he claimed) more than 40 murders. Those are just the countries that rate a mention in director Jean-François Richet’s movie; there were exploits in a number of others that Richet and writer Abdel Raouf Dafri can’t manage to squeeze in, even with a four-hour-plus running time.

The movie comes in two parts, both of which open at the Crest Theatre this week: Part one, Killer Instinct, based on the boastful autobiography Mesrine published from prison in 1977, takes his story from service in the French Army in Algeria in the 1950s to his escape from a Canadian maximum security prison in 1972; part two, Public Enemy #1, picks up more or less where part one left off, but we find our protagonist (it would be a stretch to call him our hero) much changed.

In Vincent Cassel’s masterful performance, Mesrine is harder and more ruthless than he is in the first half of the story. He’s grosser, too; potbellied and puffy (Cassel reportedly gained 40 pounds for the movie’s later scenes, gradually slimming down as the picture was shot in reverse chronological order), with a face that reflects the sour stench of a dead soul that his youth and good looks partly conceal in the early years. Mesrine still manages to appeal to attractive women, but the reason for it becomes harder to understand. It’s as if, as Mesrine gets more cocky and insouciant in his manipulation of the media, posing as a post-Marxist revolutionary Robin Hood, the private man becomes more sullen and repellent. We’re left to wonder why that last girlfriend, sitting in his BMW when the cops opened fire, thought he was worth the risk of hanging around when he had repeatedly said he’d go down shooting.

Richet and Dafri never answer this question; in fact, they barely address it. They become almost as intoxicated with restaging the violent episodes in Mesrine’s career as he was in committing them in the first place. As with Michael Mann’s Public Enemies last year, we have to wonder if the gunplay at Mesrine’s various robberies and prison breaks was as heavy in real life as it is in reel life—but then, the documented body count from Mesrine’s adventures (most of the 40 murders he bragged about were never even confirmed, much less attributed to him) is enough to suggest that it’s within the limits of dramatic license.

The two movies (which are really one) never explain why this son of the middle class embraced so eagerly the criminal life. Dafri’s script opens with Mesrine’s army service, spent brutally suppressing the Algerian independence movement, and suggests that what he did there twisted him for life. But the suggestion is so halfhearted—like the shorthand of 1970s and ’80s Hollywood, when “Vietnam vet” was a synonym for “tormented psycho”—that even Dafri and Richet probably don’t take it seriously. Besides, Mesrine’s sociopathic aggressions surfaced long before he enlisted. A nod toward the rationalizing leftist cant of Mesrine’s late career is similarly tentative, as if to say no one really swallows that.

Ultimately, we may suspect Richet and Dafri aren’t that interested in explaining Mesrine’s career. It’s enough for them that it was made for the movies. Mesrine crackles with tension and violence, driven by the man’s repellent personality and Cassel’s powerhouse performance. By the time those police sharpshooters finally finish Mesrine off, we’re relieved.

In interviews, Dafri and Richet have made clucking noises about the ambush violating Mesrine’s “human rights,” but they’ve done their job too well to make him a martyr to police brutality. It’s a kind of “audience nullification”: We don’t really care how it happened, as long as the sonofabitch is dead.