It is a truth universally acknowledged that films with a colon their title are usually rubbish. From the made for TV films with names like Tough Love: The Jackie Donovan story, to blockbusters like The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and Mission: Impossible, exceptions are few and far between. Fortunately, Mesrine: Killer Instinct is one of them. Killer Instinct is the first of a two parter depicting the life and crimes of Jacques Mesrine, the most famous criminal in French history. The film deals with the period between 1959 when he left the French Army, having been serving in Algeria, and 1972 when he was at the peak of his criminal career.
The film is based on Mesrine’s own autobiography, L’Instinct De Mort, although it alters some events for dramatic effect. Not that Mesrine’s life was lacking in drama “ he committed a number of murders, bank robberies and kidnappings, and was famous for his ability to break out of prison. During one of his many prison stays, Mesrine wrote the book, smuggled it out and the broke out himself some time later. Incidentally, the book led directly to the passing of the law which prevents criminals from profiting off the publicity of their crimes.
The film begins with the last movements of Mesrine and the police operation that led to his death. As the guns are raised to shoot him down, we jump back in time to see a young Mesrine coming out of the army and trying to build a life back in France. But working for a living lacks appeal and he quickly turns to crime when he sees the success his friend Paul is having through burglaries. The film then progresses through a series of incidents that show the various sides of Mesrine and his life. Mesrine is often portrayed as a kind of folk hero, and while the film is open to accusations of glamourising his lifestyle (the women, the daring heists) it also doesn’t shy away from his dark side. He commits murders (in his book he boasts of killing 40, although this is thought to be an exaggeration) and at one point he puts a gun in his own wife’s mouth.
Mesrine is a fascinating subject for a film “ almost too fascinating. One of the problems with Killer Instinctis that Mesrine’s life was so full of incident that the movie gets slightly confused trying to pack it all in: years are covered in a couple of moments, children spring up from nowhere and at one point Mesrine is asked if he remembers a character he shot in the previous scene “ it turns out some time has passed, but there has been little indication of this. It might have been stronger had fewer events been chosen and given a little more room to breathe. It’ also hard to know whether we’re meant to be rooting for Mesrine – it’s set up that way during his prison breakout attempts, but you can’t forget that he’s been locked up for entirely justifiable reasons. Perhaps this is the conundrum of Mesrine himself “ a charming, charismatic, at times almost heroic figure, but with a horrific brutal streak. Vincent Cassel balances this dichotomy perfectly, and the movie is held by his magnificent performance. He shows again shows that he’s one of the finest actors of his generation. He’s ably supported by a strong cast including Gerard Depardieu, Cecile de France and Elena Anaya.