Friday, 11 September 2009

Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Pacing is an issue in Mesrine: Killer Instinct, the first of a two part bio-epic detailing the rise and fall of Jacques Mesrine, France's most notorious criminal. Before you can say 'sacre bleur', Mesrine has had two wives, emerged as a violent underworld player, and been imprisoned in two countries...and that's just the entree.

What Martin Scorsese managed so well in his 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas was to convey the wider picture of minor mob hierachy, ranging from the teenage years of prospective gangster Henry Hill to his sell-out days as a mob informant. Everything had coherence, every moment added up to a violent, fascinating tapestry of life on the edge. Killer Instinct by contrast feels bitty and lacks substance.

What it does boast however is possibly Eurostar Vincent Cassell's breakout performance. Cassell, who has worked consistently hard since his breakout role in La Haine (which Killer Instinct superficially resembles) is a force of nature as the title character, always skirting on the edge between anti-hero and reprehensible thug.

We begin in situ in a harrowing Algiers-set opening sequence, where Mesrine is enlisted as a soldier during France's colonial occupation. Forced to execute a suspected traitor at point blank range, this is cleverly structured as the genesis of Mesrine's uncompromising criminal character, framing the brutal activities to come. On the return to Paris, his next step is to reject his bourgeois parents' platitudes of a 'normal life' and he soon falls in with a murky crowd, making an impression on local kingpin, Guido (a menacing Gerard Depardieu).

Imagine all of the above crammed into a mere 15 minutes and you have an impression of Killer Instinct's breathless pace. With such a fascinating life to cover, director Jean-Francois Richet has created a rod for his own back in attempting to cram his film with incident rather than insight. There's such a rush to portray Mesrine's rise to fame (in preparation for the second installment), that the story loses credibility, although certain vignettes crackle with slow burning tension (Mesrine and Guido's nighttime disposal of a pimp builds suspense to nail-biting proportions all through carefully timed glances).

It's a pity that such depth only occasionally breaks forth; indeed, the film's subtle indictment of France's colonial policy, as witnessed in the opening scene and later on, lend it the edge it so desperately needs. Thankfully events are better staged in the latter half when Mesrine conducts a pulse pounding Canadian prison break before recklessly returning to take the guards on himself. Here, finally, the film is content to let the anti-hero's psyche speak for itself, to let the implications of violence and criminality sink in through extended, leisurely set-ups rather than chopping and changing throughout the decades. The climactic callous act of violence may in fact tell us we have underestimated the troubling character we have just spent two hours with...complexities that can only deepen in the second installment.

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