Deja vu (French, already seen)
By Jen Chaney
Friday, August 27, 2010
"Mesrine: Killer Instinct" unfolds like a story that has been told before and not just because it's based on the life of actual notorious French criminal Jacques Mesrine.
The problem with "Killer Instinct" -- the first half of a two-part biopic released in France in 2008 and out Friday in U.S. theaters -- is that much of it plays like an unintentional mash-up of the numerous wrong-side-of-the-law sagas that preceded it.
Early in the film, as Mesrine (played with thoroughly believable charisma by Vincent Cassel) gets seduced by the wealth and pseudo-glamour of '50s-era French gangster life, "Killer Instinct" gives off the vibe of a Scorsese picture, a "Goodfellas en Francais."
But later, when Mesrine and his lover, Jeanne Schneider (Cécile de France), team up to rob banks, kidnap an elderly millionaire and cruise the back roads of America while on the lam, the movie evokes shades of "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Thelma and Louise," with a dash of the Pumpkin/Honey Bunny relationship in "Pulp Fiction."
Then there's the effectively tense sequence of Mesrine's scheme to bust out of jail. It's a nail-biter, with a climax paced so perfectly by director Jean-François Richet that it makes us root for a con artist, thief and murderer to squeeze his way through a barbed-wire fence toward freedom. And yet, even as we relish the moment, we simultaneously can't help but think, "Didn't something similar happen in 'The Shawshank Redemption'? Or wait . . . was that an episode of 'Prison Break'?"
The crime drama has been done so many times, so well, that "Killer Instinct" would have to offer something strikingly fresh in order to distinguish itself. And it doesn't, largely because the story of Jacques Mesrine -- a French Army veteran who embarked on a career as a hard-core criminal -- naturally leads the filmmakers to touch on every cliche the genre has to offer.
And touch on is exactly the right choice of words; in an effort, perhaps, to hit as many key events in the Mesrine biography as possible, the movie often hurtles from scene to scene without pausing for inconveniences such as character development.
"Killer Instinct" manages to show disturbing and occasionally grisly violence, including stabbings, shootings and, during one particularly uncomfortable segment, the torture of Mesrine by prison guards who strip and hose him down while in solitary confinement. Squeamish viewers, consider yourselves warned.
Of course, "Killer Instinct" certainly has a few redeeming cinematic qualities, the most notable being Cassel's performance. An actor primarily recognizable to Americans for his roles in "Ocean's Twelve" and "Eastern Promises," he won a Cesar Award (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for his work in this film, and one can see why. As Mesrine, he convincingly acts the part of sexy charmer one minute, then turns into an irrational, raging monster the next, a man believably capable of jamming a gun so deep into the mouth of the mother of his children, you can almost see the cold steel graze her tonsils.
It's an exceptional and committed performance. Also a dominant presence in "Killer Instinct" is the reliably majestic Gérard Depardieu, who carries the authoritative air (and the girth) of a "Godfatherly" Marlon Brando as a crime boss with a laughably non-French name: Guido.
As "Killer Instinct" comes to an end, the obvious question arises: Do we care enough about Jacques Mesrine to buy a ticket for the second installment in this series? That would be "Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1," a film with a title that, yes, is reminiscent of yet another movie (last summer's John Dillinger biopic "Public Enemies") and opens Sept. 3.
Some may find Cassel's portrayal of this complex and legendary figure compelling enough to answer that question with a yes. But others may consider what they've seen in "Killer Instinct" and, despite their curiosity about how it all wraps up, conclude, "You know, I think I got the gist."
Contains strong, brutal violence, some sexual content and language. In French with English subtitles.