November 7, 2010

Bullets for a Gangster

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Many films in the course of history have sought to depict the legendary criminal, the man or woman who brazenly defies the social order and its institutions for whatever motivation and whose reputation becomes so much larger-than-life that they become glamorized rather than vilified in the eyes of the general public. Mesrine: Killer Instinct is one of these films. It is part one of a diptych of two movies, the other being the sequel Mesrine: Public Enemy No. One, that depicts the life and times of the notorious and legendary French gangster and bank robber Jacques Mesrine (played by Vincent Cassel), a man whose story so parallels that of John Dillinger that he could have been his reincarnation. As a whole, Mesrine: Killer Instinct is a fast paced, tense and at times horrifyingly brutal and violent thriller, the kind that you’d have to be in a coma to sleep through. However, given the sheer length and scope of Mesrine’s criminal career, it does seem like the film is trying to bite off more than it can chew, cramming so much detail into the space of one and a half hours that the end product does at times feel rushed, disjointed and superficial.

Killer Instinct opens, like many movies like to do nowadays, with the ending: Mesrine, in 1979, walks out of an apartment, meets his lady friend, gets into a car, drives down the street and is ambushed and killed by a squad of French policemen. With this ignominious end in mind, we are transported back to the 1959, where we see a young – and much thinner — Mesrine demonstrating his brutality and willingness to summarily execute prisoners of war as a French soldier in the Algerian War of Independence. After his return to France, he begins to resent the strictures of the life his parents want him to live and falls in with his friend Paul (Gilles Lellouche), and the crime boss Guido, menacingly played by the great Gérard Depardieu in a performance that is perhaps the quintessence of crime-bossness.

Mesrine takes to this new job with relish and aplomb, never showing the slightest bit of moral repugnance at his acts. The film paints a picture of a man motivated to crime not out of greed, desperation or love, but purely because he enjoys and is thrilled by its excitement and adrenaline rush — a true sociopath in every sense of the word. Mesrine is, on the surface, a suave, self-assured ladies’ man, but when he gets angry, he becomes a brutal monster. One of the most arrestingly brutal scenes of the film comes when Mesrine, angered at an Arab pimp’s mutilation of his prostitute lover, drives him to a secluded spot, binds him, stabs him repeatedly in the abdomen and throws him into an unmarked grave to bury him alive. The next scene abruptly transits to him dancing with and smiling to his new wife as romantic music plays in the background. Cassel handles this transformation with a chameleon-like adroitness that is frightening to watch

It is in this schizophrenic vein, however, that the film’s weaknesses are most apparent, for it tries to cram too much into too little. The movie is full of abrupt and unexplained jumps in the timeline. In one scene, Mesrine and his cronies plan a risky bank heist. The next moment, he is being led to a prison cell, and the bank heist that led to his capture is mysteriously elided, causing temporary confusion. It might, as the film’s opener suggests, be impossible to capture the full extent of a man’s life in the space of three hours, but rigorous editing and a more cohesive screenplay would have made this film tighter and more cohesive.

That said, one of the film’s great strengths, and a major redeeming point, is that when it does action, it does it masterfully well. The film shines when it depicts Mesrine at work: bank heists, shootouts, car chase scenes and a long and involved escape from a maximum security prison. The use of tense, gripping music and innovative cinematic techniques, such as splitting up the screen into multiple smaller pictures to show the action from different perspectives, makes the action sequences more exciting than the average cookie-cutter, Hollywood-style big explosion variety.

Ultimately, the essential premise of the film is so derivative of the typical crime drama that it fails to bring anything truly fresh and original in terms of content to the genre. Mesrine’s life is like a bullet point list of the essential life experiences of a career criminal legend in the tradition of John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde. The fact that the film attempts to cram every single one of these clichés into the narrative makes it disjointed and unfocused. Still, it is in its masterfully tense action sequences and its brutal, unflinching and unsentimental portrayal of the two-faced crime legend, that the film truly shines and entertains, and that is more than enough to overcome its shortcomings and make this worth the watch. Bring on the sequel.

Original Author: Colin Chan