Thursday, February 3, 2011

MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT (PART ONE) / Staff review by Evan Salazar

Paced like a freight train, MESRINE PART 1: KILLER INSTINCT (based on the book by the eponymous criminal) is proof that not all French films are existential navel-gazing or romantic strolls down the Champs-Elysees. From its Brian De Palma-esque split-screen opening credits to its sex-and-guns fixation to its boorish, arrogant lead in famed French criminal Jacques Mesrine (played by Vincent Cassel), KILLER INSTINCT is ostensibly the most “American” French movie you are likely to see this year – and that is no way a bad thing. Director Jean-Francois Richet has crafted a rich, engrossing, and exceptionally well-constructed gangster film, and he has made it better than any American has in a long, long time. He hasn’t done this through some sort of subversion of the genre, however: it’s just that KILLER INSTINCT soaks the screen with blood with such ferocity, paints its title character so lovingly, and relishes in its wonderful source material so giddily that calling it a “gangster film” almost feels like one is delegitimizing it. And while the argument of “art vs. genre” films is one that opens up too many cans of worms, KILLER INSTINCT finds itself nestled just fine between both worlds.

KILLER INSTINCT tells the story of infamous French criminal Jacques Mesrine, a former French soldier who didn’t know where to put the aggression he learned in the armed forces after the Algerian War. So, after meeting up with an old friend, Mesrine starts to live a life of crime – prostitutes, gambling, bank robbery, and even murder. He falls in and out of love, goes in and out of prison, and his reign of crime spans continents. KILLER INSTINCT follows our anti-hero along the first half of his odyssey through crime, and the film is quick, sharp, and doesn’t waste a second telling the story. So much happens in the almost two hour running time that the film is kinetically hypnotic.

And despite being spread over two movies, it is expected that some details are skipped over or completely dismissed. This does not hurt the film, however: the story we are presented with is fleshed out and has a bite sharper than most 90 minute films. That is saying a lot considering even a few minutes of un-needed material can bog a movie down. KILLER INSTRICT, on the other hand, is bursting at the seams – but it doesn’t completely break the seal. There’s just enough there.

The film is clearly working in broad strokes; this is not a character study. That’s not to say that Cassel’s performance as Mesrine isn’t bombastic or charismatic or whatever other word you’d like to use to say how simply fantastic he is, though. Cassel makes Mesrine into a larger-than-life character: he explodes with rage, whether he is sticking a gun into his wife’s mouth or crippling a man who talked to a bartender with the wrong tone. With these sorts of films, as well, one has to be careful when portraying a real-life character as nefarious as Mesrine. Does the film condone his actions? Condemn them? Does it matter? I believe KILLER INSTINCT finds a nice grey for it, portraying Mesrine as a troubled man, uncouth and vile… and yet also appearing decidedly human. His charisma is undeniable; his anger is ugly and childlike. Cassel didn’t win Best Actor at the Cesar Awards (The French equivalent of the Oscars) for nothing.

With his moustache, greased back hair, and penchant for wanton violence, Mesrine owns the screen in every frame of this high-octane, full-fledged crime epic. Let it be known, though: KILLER INSTINCT only works okay as a stand-alone film. The story’s conclusion, found in the film PUBLIC ENEMY #1, is needed to give KILLER INSTINCT its proper weight. Sure, KILLER INSTINCT works fine as a stand-alone action film, but the depth the material so deserves is truly found in PUBLIC ENEMY #1. This is not to say that PUBLIC ENEMY #1 is a more nuanced film, but rather that the first film is only half the story. PUBLIC ENEMY #1 is not a sequel: it is a continuation. All that aside, KILLER INSTINCT is a punch in the gut that is so self-assured, it knows you’ll be sticking around for part two, anyhow.

And you thought French films were all just Audrey Tautou and je t’aime this and je t’aime that.

By Evan Salazar, full-time student, part-time Floor Staffer, all-around cineaste extraordinaire.

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