Mesrine: L’Instinct De Mort (Killer Instinct) (2010) Review

These days, gangster movies have their work cut out for them. With so many great films dominating this genre, filmmakers who want to take a stab better make sure they get it right or it’ll be forgotten as quick as it came. Fortunately for the people behind Mesrine: L’Instinct De Mort (Killer Instinct), they nailed it. While it may not have the star-power of The Departed it certainly has the charisma. Great scenes, a fascinating main character and intelligent pacing make this the next gangster flick that you do not want to miss.

Mesrine: L’Instinct De Mort (Killer Instinct) is an exciting and fascinating look at the life of the notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine. The first of two parts, Killer Instinct covers Jacques’ life from the start of his career as a criminal, to his rise to prominence as France’s most wanted outlaw. Jacques (Vincent Cassel) goes from a soldier in the French-Algerian war to a budding criminal under the guidance of his benevolent boss Guido (Gérard Depardieu) When Jacques eventually strikes out on his own, he goes on a crime spree with his femme fatale mistress Jeanne Schneider (Cécile De France) that takes them from France to Canada. There they conduct a high profile kidnapping that lands them both in jail, but a brilliant escape gets Jacques back outside, where the crime continues. It’s a lot to take in, considering this is just part one; however, once you’re drawn into the life of Jacques Mesrine, you won’t miss a single beat.

A bit of fair warning though, this isn’t the type of film that The Departed and Goodfellas have established as the essential modern crime story. This is a brutal and uncompromising look at Jacques Mesrine the man, concerned much more with character than with scenes of actual crimes. In no way is this observation a deterrent to the film, but audiences who expect more action than drama may be put off.

By the end of the opening credits, an unexpected shock guarantees that we’re in for an intense story. When the narrative proper starts, a young Jacques is serving in the French army during the French-Algerian war. He’s part of a unit torturing Algerian rebels for information. Quickly we see Jacques at his most raw, when he turns a gun from a rebel’s own sister onto the rebel himself. Jacques has an interesting relationship with authority, with his enemies and with women. But above all he’s self-assured – a ruthless trait that never seems to get him into a situation he can’t talk or shoot his way out of.

Here’s what will make audiences really enjoy the film. Cassel’s Jacques is as charming, funny and passionate as he is brutal. We see his strained relationships with his parents, we see the immediate connection between him and his boss in the criminal underworld, and we see the seduction and ensuing love for his wife. Jacques never lets us forget that man from the war though, particularly when he exacts a truly brutal vengeance on a pimp who crosses him. He consciously shuns an honest life for one of crime and we see him drive away the wife who he was so clearly in love with when she threatens to come between him and his friends. The movie succeeds here splendidly; these are all intimate scenes that speak volumes about Jacques Mesrine.

After Jacques and his mistress Jeanne are arrested, we get to see a great new side of Jacques. The high profile crime propels him into the spotlight, a position where he clearly feels at home. His charisma comes out in full force; he mugs for the camera and yells one-liners, becoming no less than a 1970’s John Dillinger. Jacques’ high doesn’t last long though; the story slows dramatically when he’s incarcerated. While audiences might find the slower parts in prison tedious, it pays off. Rising action builds towards a climax that stands as the most exciting scene in the film.

While watching Jacques larger-than-life story, it’s easy to forget the person he really is. And it is totally forgivable – the action remains exciting, the violence is unrelenting. But the film’s greatest brilliance is here: no matter how close we as an audience come to liking Jacques Mesrine, no matter how many successful bank robberies there are, no matter how many daring prison breaks he conducts, we’re always reminded that he is man who simply does not hesitate to kill in cold blood.

Everyone who enjoys crime sagas should find something to love in this film. Carefully placed tributes to films like Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde keep the French film from seeming too alien. More than likely it will remind U.S. audiences of our own recent Public Enemies. Despite the nostalgia, Killer Instinct stands on its own merit. This film is a fascinating first part look at the life of a man who truly meant it when he said his only choice is “out or death.” Crowds will leave wondering how far he really gets and itching to see part two.