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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Richet's Mesrine Has No Instinct for the Kill

Mesrine, Part One: Killer Instinct 
Mesrine, Part Two: Public Enemy Number One
Directed by Jean-François Richet
Starring Vincent Cassel

I have to admit, there is almost nothing I enjoy more than a biopic about a notorious criminal. I am looking forward to seeing Michael Shannon as The Iceman, got a huge kick out of Johnny Depp as Dillinger in PublicEnemies, and loved Ray Liotta as the tweaky coke-head Henry Hill in Goodfellas (though I never could figure out why they dropped Nick Pileggi's original name for the story, Wiseguy).

Michael Shannon as hitman Richard Kuklinski
Depp as John Dillinger

Despite my guilty pleasure at this type of film, sometimes a movie about a real life criminal just doesn't ring my bell, regardless of who plays the part. Maybe it's because the criminal lacks the charm of a Johnny Depp, or the doomed romantic chemistry of Dunaway and Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde. Maybe the lead simply doesn't project the same toxic creepiness as Michael Shannon.

This was the problem I faced with Mesrine: Killer Instinct and its sequel, Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One (both released in 2008)I just couldn't get into the main character in any substantial way.

The films, directed by Jean-François Richet, form a two-part dramatization of the life of Jacques Mesrine, a French gangster who was a one-man crime wave during the late 1960s and 1970s. Robberies, kidnappings, murder -- Mesrine seemed to do it all.  He was a globe-trotting criminal who appeared to have sprung from the pages of the comic strip, Modesty Blaise, and his crimes took him to Mallorca in Spain, the Spanish-owned Canary Islands off the north coast of Africa and Quebec province in Canada.

The real Jacques Mesrine: Killer Instinct to spare. . .

Richet's films seem to parallel key episodes in Mesrine's life and storied career, depicting numerous homicides, at least one attempted murder and a host of stick-ups, including one of a casino at Deauville. Two abductions are depicted and no less than two escapes from prisons, one of them La Sante, France's ostensibly escape-proof maximum security facility.

On the surface, this should be the stuff of a terrific movie, but Richet's two-parter seems flat, listless and uninvolving. Mesrine, parts One and Two, are fine as long as they concentrate on the action; but the films never really give us any insight into what drove the French gangster, and the harder they try, the less we feel we know about the man whose exploits drove the headlines.

I found the picture uninvolving for a number of reasons. For one thing, some of Mesrine's crimes come across as flat-footed and clownish, but not in the amusing way the two hit men occasionally behave in Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player

For example, when Mesrine and Besse rob the casino in Deauville, they have to abandon their getaway vehicle and flee on foot. While crossing a stream, the gangsters lose a suitcase full of cash in the water. There isn't a smile's-worth of humor in the entire sequence, and Mesrine's ineptitude in the scene sorely undercuts his image as a master criminal.

In Truffaut's hands, the comic elements slightly leaven the grim, fatalistic story. Not so in Mesrine. The buffoonery is presented literally, not played for laughs.

Vincent Cassel won a Cesar Award -- the French equivalent of the Oscar -- for his portrayal of Mesrine. His performance is intense, but the man he plays seems to lack the personal charm and charisma to be a 20th Century Robin Hood. In scenes in which Mesrine is shown jousting with the police or reporters he seems slightly out of his depth and projects an  individual who wants to maintain his personal popularity but isn't quite sure how to do it because he got it accidentally in the first place.

During a sequence in which he argues politics with a leftist friend, Mesrine, himself, seems uncertain what his personal convictions are. He appears to be working them out as he goes, trying to come up with things to say to keep his friend on his side. In the end, he takes an essentially apolitical stance.

But his comments lack conviction. They are one-dimensional and disingenuous. As delivered by Cassel, they seem more like lines learned by a rather talentless actor than a legitimate statement of his point of view.

Perhaps that is the point Richet is trying to make: that Mesrine was the star of his own screenplay, and was making up his part as he went along.

(Warning: the remainder of this essay contains spoilers.)

If that is the case, the melodrama ended in November 1979 when Mesrine was ambushed by a French SWAT team as he and his girlfriend were on their way to an outing in the country. Tipped where he was, the police pulled in front of him in an unmarked van, threw open the rear doors and shot the notorious outlaw to death in a scene reminiscent of the climax to Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde.

It's a measure of Mesrine's inaccessibility in these two films that when he is machine-gunned by police, I felt nothing whatsoever. 

It would be wrong to criticize Richet for treating  a cold-blooded killer too sympathetically in this film. The real shortcoming of Mesrine, Parts One and Two, is that they maintain such a careful neutrality that when the gangster meets his demise, it has less emotional impact on the viewer than a bug hitting his or her windshield during a Sunday drive.

Clearly Mesrine was a more complicated and interesting character than he is portrayed in these two films.  Richet's failure to capture that complexity -- or even hint it existed -- is a critical failing, and turns what could have been a fascinating case study of sociopathic behavior into a shoot-'em-up without an actual core.

Two and a half nooses. Close but not close enough. . .

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