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Photo: Bullet ballet. Vincent Cassel and Gilles Lellouche wreak havoc in 'Mesrine: Killer Instinct,' the first part of Richet's art-crime diptych.   

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"Mesrine: Killer Instinct" begins at the end. Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is brutally assassinated in the middle of a crowded street. A cop tries to explain this hail of bullets to reporters. But the rest of the film is a far better rationalization for this viciousness as director Jean-Francois Richet shifts audience appraisal of the fallen from martyr to sociopath.

From there Richet details Mesrine's formative years. However, the foundations of his ruthlessness begin in Algeria, not the schoolyard. While in the French army Mesrine gets his first lessons in violence, torturing "terrorists." When the war ends, he returns to Paris and immediately finds a career that suits his skills. He progresses from breaking & entering to hired muscle to murderer, surprising even the saltiest Parisian gangsters.

One of these, Guido, played by Gerard Depardieu, takes on the youngster as an apprentice of sorts. Depardieu, one of the stalwarts of late French cinema, does a rousing job playing the gruff, paunchy crime bigwig, a dead ringer for Brit Ray Winstone.

When Mesrine isn't holding up banks, he's stealing hearts. The moustached lothario is seductive even in his many disguises (bald, fat, Canadian). But just as Mesrine's charm makes you forget his past deeds, his violence comes back with full force into the picture. He kicks, punches and casts out girlfriends with little care.

It's all going peachy for Mesrine and Guido until they rip off the wrong people. Our hero skedaddles for Montreal along with one of his lovers. In Quebec the two are reborn as the francophonic Bonnie and Clyde until landing themselves a pair of prison sentences. Mesrine stages a fantastic escape and returns to France.

It's here that "Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1" picks up and turns down a darker path. Arrested and put on trial, Mesrine turns the stand into his own pulpit, claiming to be Robin Hood and painting the French government as King John. After escaping yet another prison, he tells a reporter that he's a revolutionary. But Mesrine's cause is neither populist nor political. He's simply using the press and publicity as myth-making tool. He wants to be an honorable, honest crook. When a writer says otherwise, Mesrine beats him senseless as a "message to others."

As the cops close in on Jacques he is but a shell of his former self. Overweight, delusional and paranoid, he seems at once pathetic and all the more dangerous, a wounded animal. The innocent man seen at the beginning of the first film has been transformed completely.

Vincent Cassel's portrayal of Mesrine is nothing short of magnificent. Most gangster films try to make the grotesque appealing. Mesrine is sympathetic and gradually grows more disgusting. He's a victim of the state. The war in Algeria created this trained killer, conditions in prison stoked his rage and the government ultimately killed him. But his violence towards women and pragmatic criminality (whichever rationale for stealing is fashionable works) dooms his narcissistic concern for history.

Director Richet brings a bit of French flair to the gangster flick. While he has a history of action film (he directed the 2005 remake of John Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13"), Richet orchestrates scene after scene of beautiful, taut suspense. There are more than a dozen breathless moments that threaten violence while leaving viewers on the edge of their seats. These moments outstrip the actual gunplay by increasing the suspense, which isn't to downplay the movie's firepower (squeamish need not apply).

The cinematography by Robert Gantz is spectacular. Each locale has its own distinct and beautiful pallette. Paris: Red; Quebec: Blue; each prison has dulling shades of gray and puke green. Gantz's stylization never overtakes the movie's rough action. Both films are wonderful marriages of beautiful French photography and the American gangster genre.

"Killer Instinct" and "Public Enemy" benefit from a superb creative vision, one that seeks to add some art-house to action. The aforementioned opening credits feature manifold images of Mesrine strolling Paris streets, each of them slightly different, emphasizing the many causes and myths the man had accumulated for himself. He's a tough character to pin down and I doubt the filmmakers knows the real Mesrine either.


Add some arthouse to action with Derek at [email protected]

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