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Mesrine — Part 1: Killer Instinct, Part 2: Public Enemy #1 (Blu-ray Review)

11 Apr, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Music Box
Box Office Part 1 $0.6 million
Box Office Part 2 $0.3 million
$29.95 each DVD, $34.95 each Blu-ray
Part 1 Rated ‘R’ for strong brutal violence, some sexual content and language
Part 2 Rated ‘R’ for bloody brutal violence, a scene of sexuality, nudity and pervasive language.

In French with English subtitles.
Stars Vincent Cassel, Gerard Depardieu, Cecile De France, Ludivine Sagnier.

The home release of France’s four-hour crime gangster saga has likely caught a bigger break than its subject gave many of his victims. In the interim between Mesrine’s two-part theatrical release and recent two-part launch (a month apart) on DVD and Blu-ray, lead Vincent Cassel got a lot of ink and exposure to mainstream moviegoers by appearing as the ballet maestro in Black Swan. To my mind, the actor still looks something like Bruce Springsteen (more so in this duo), and as France’s most famous criminal ever, he’s playing a guy with comparable showmanship.

Directed by Jean-Francois Richet, who did the not-bad 2005 remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, this is a tough movie to gauge artistically, and I understand why reactions were somewhat polarized. Given a protagonist who at times expanded his operation into the United States and Canada as well — and broke out of jail several times and once broke back in to spring pals — it is inevitably episodic. And not to be unreasonable about it or anything, but is it a quaint notion to spend four hours with a movie and hope to get at least a little sense of what makes its central character tick? Or, for that matter, to get a little feel for what French society as a whole was experiencing as Jacques Mesrine was knocking off banks (including two that were across the street from each other) and killing up to 30-some or even 40 people?

On the other hand — and this is also borne out by the new DVD/Blu-ray of The Ten Commandments — it is no everyday achievement to fashion a movie of uncommon length that has very few lulls or at least no lulls of consequence. A lot of this is due to Cesar winner Cassel’s constant charisma in playing a character who did not himself (Google a few photos for fun) look anything like Springsteen. You can, however, tell from these same photos that Mesrine had a lot of his own fun donning disguises. In one segment of part two Enemy, we see Cassel even attempt a balding look — whereupon we think to ourselves: “Well, the makeover might work in terms of obscuring his identity, but it won’t exactly be a chick magnet.” At which point, he goes into a bar and hooks up with his final femme accomplice (Ludivine Sagnier as “Sylvie”); soon they are engaging in the one hot sex scene to be found in the combo four-hour running time. And for the record, Sagnier doesn’t look like Springsteen, either. She was the young looker (Charlotte Rumpling was the older one) who captured her share of imaginations in Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool.

Long before this hottie shows up, there’s a pretty but almost pitiful wife (Elena Anaya, an actress who served some of her own prison time by opting to appear in Van Helsing). Mesrine meets and sweet-talks her not long after he returns from having been a sadist in the French army’s war against Algeria — a courtship scene that could almost be out of a conventional romance. But we know this innocent’s happy days are numbered.

By this time, Cassel’s Mesrine has hooked up with a hood played by the still prolific Gerard Depardieu (as ever, the hardest working man in French show business). And then it’s on to the bigger times of international travel, artillery-packed prison breaks and a mistress (the impossibly named actress Cecile De France) who doesn’t mind the life. By “life,” I mean the fact that almost every time we see Mesrine (often with a woman) sequestered in some hideout, the inevitable radio or TV broadcast that blares is always carrying something about him. This may even be the way it was: he was a huge deal for two decades, and the police couldn’t track or crack him — even though he kept a fairly public profile in terms of giving interviews. It would be a huge stretch, however, to claim Mesrine had an affinity for the press, given the incessant pummeling we see him give to a right-wing reporter near the end of this saga’s most brutal scene. If Mesrine had a press agent and were operating today, the poor guy would want to go work for Chris Brown to get some relative peace.

Ladies man. Master of disguises. Mr. Showmanship. The descriptions also fit John Dillinger, to whom Mesrine was often compared. And, in fact, robbing adjacent banks is in the spirit of the lively Dillinger reportage about small-town Ohio heists contained in Bryan Burrough’s splendid book Public Enemies (which is much more kinetic than the disappointing movie Michael Mann made of it). Matter of fact, in a recurring scene that director Richet reprises throughout, we’re treated to Mesrine’s eventual 1979 assassination by cops in an urban-street production number (talk about a Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out) not unlike the 1934 counterpart that brought down Dillinger in Chicago. France’s public enemy is lying there dead in a car — this is not exactly a spoiler — and his passenger/mistress is screaming to police that they’ve killed her pet dog in the onslaught. Nice to have your priorities, but this is the kind of psychopath Mesrine was.

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