Jacques Mesrine was a renowned gangster in France, well-known for his brutal murders, kidnapping, bank robberies and extortion in the ’60s and ’70s, but made legendary for his sneering arrogance and ultra-confident air, a combination of Dillinger and Liam Gallagher. As portrayed by Vincent Cassel in a brilliant turn, he’s also a highly-skilled sociopath, able to switch from being charming and light-spirited to sadistic and vicious and back again in the time it takes to switch the safety on his pistol.
When we first meet Mesrine, he’s in the French military assigned to quash uprisings in Algiers via torture and murder. Returning to his native country, he puts his newly learned skills to use with his friend Paul (Gilles Lellouche), working for the well-connected gangster, Guido (Gérard Depardieu). Amidst robberies and murders, Mesrine finds the time to fall in love with a Spanish beauty named Sofia (Elena Anaya), with whom he has three children before his brutality and disrespect sends her packing. Soon after, he meets Jeanne Schneider (Cécile De France), an equally abusive and reckless match for him, and they go on a crime bender, robbing everyone and everything that comes in their path. Eventually, the couple are forced to flee to Montreal, where Mesrine is finally arrested after a failed kidnapping scheme. Breaking out of prison, he and his new partner, Mercier (Roy Dupuis), go on another spree — even going so far as to attack the prison they broke out of in an aborted attempt to free more prisoners.
As this is the part one of a two-part epic, the film more or less closes in mid-stride, with many questions still left unanswered, but there can be no questioning the skill and power of Cassel’s performance, which is nothing short of astonishing. If Mesrine’s biography sounds like something out of Scorsese source material, Cassel is Richet’s answer to DeNiro: Equal amounts snarling and charming, demanding respect and giving very little in return. He’s a fox in a henhouse, no matter what situation he’s put into, his mouth curling into a tight, cruel smile at the prospect of any kind of forthcoming violence. Richet’s film, gorgeously shot by Robert Gantz, is filled with visual metaphors — many broken and refracted mirrors, breaking up the film’s subjects into bits and pieces of a singular whole, and a tendency to utilize ’70s-era split screens — but the sizzle never oversells the steak. The film also has a nervous and twitchy pace to it, avoiding any kind of superfluous action, cutting away from obvious scenes and bringing the focus relentlessly back on its brutally captivating protagonist.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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