Gangster movies usually come in one of three flavors. In the first kind, the filmmakers identify with their glamorized protagonists (think Coppola’s Corleones or Michael Mann’s Dillinger in Public Enemies), portraying them as admirable, even honorable men who abide by a strict moral code in an immoral world. The second show no love to their gangsters, thugs without remorse like the ugly brutes in last year’s Gomorrah. The third—and probably most common—play it both ways, making their gangsters charismatic enough to appeal to our love of rebels without a cause (think Tony Soprano) while showing enough of the damage they inflict to remind us that bad-boy infatuations work best as fantasy.
A recent addition to that third tradition is the two-part French gangster movie I saw at a pair of press screenings. (Released in France and Belgium in 2008, Mesrine: Killer Instinct opens August 27 in New York and LA, followed a week later by Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1). A straightforward saga based on the autobiography of a self-made gangster (Jacques Mesrine’s respectable middle-class parents were apparently baffled by the life of crime their son chose), it starts out by dazzling us with its subject’s quick thinking, sex appeal, and balls-out nerve, but winds up exposing him as a self-deluded sociopath.
Cowriter/director Jean-François Richet, who directed the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, gives this story the propulsive pacing and adrenaline-gunning thrills of a good B movie, though it might have worked even better if he’d combined the two parts into one. Like Michael Mann’s Thief, this story doesn’t pause often or long for relationship-building scenes. Instead, it jumps from one charged event to another, as Mesrine robs, kills, kidnaps, goes to prison and escapes. You have to admire the gutsiness of some of his moves, like when he and a partner dress as cops and visit the local police station to find out what’s known about their whereabouts after an escape, or when he runs from a bank he just robbed to the one across the street on impulse, robbing the second one too before getting away. Other moves just seem boneheaded, like when he and another partner break back into a maximum-security prison they’ve escaped from, in a doomed attempt at freeing the other prisoners. But it’s all pretty compelling, especially since, as the title cards listing places and dates keep reminding us, even the most far-fetched-seeming events apparently really happened.
The excellent cast deserves a lot of the credit for the tense sense of instability the film maintains throughout. I particularly liked watching Gérard Depardieu, who makes great use of his recently acquired bulk as Guido, a quietly menacing gangster who takes loose-cannon Mesrine under his wing; Mathieu Amalric, looking a little like Roman Polanski and seething with barely-buried resentment as one of the partners Mesrine picks up in prison; and Ludivine Sagnier, who’s poignantly appealing as his amoral and apparently pretty empty-headed final mistress.
Best of all is Vincent Cassel as Mesrine. With his boxer’s nose and body, his bullet-shaped head and his frequently downturned mouth, Cassel has always made a convincing tough guy, and his animal magnetism makes it easy to believe that women might have fallen for Mesrine as easily and often as they do. But his blind stares, waves of self-righteous rage, and blustering attempts to justify his crimes as some kind of revolutionary act reveal the sociopath in Mesrine—and make his seem less a sharp-witted menace than a self-deluding meathead.
The media swallowed Mesrine’s self-created myth for a while, declaring him Public Enemy Number One and taking his self-flattering notions at face value. This two-parter makes you feel the force of his personality enough to see how that could happen, but it doesn’t succumb to the hype. As Amalric’s François scoffs: “We’re crooks, not wild-eyed idealists.”
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.