Mersine: Killer Instinct – Scarface for France

Posted on 22 August 2009
By Larry Armstrong
  • Share:

Movie fans not familiar with Jacques Mesrine, France’s most notorious gangster, could be left puzzled by the two posters that accompany the release of this two-part biopic.

The first shows a menacing-looking Vincent Cassel (La Haine) holding a gun while the other portrays the actor in a Christ-like pose.

But the images perfectly embody the man who divided public opinion, some holding him up as a political hero while others only see him as public enemy, to be wiped out.

This double bio-pic is based on the autobiography that Mesrine wrote and circulated in prison called Death Instinct; his memories may be self-serving and a statement before the film explains the action shouldn’t be considered gospel.

Yet Mesrine emerges as so horrible and unsympathetic that much of it may be nothing more nor less than the truth.

A prelude, showing Mesrine’s army service in Algeria, shows how he was brutalised by the experience. He assists at the torture and interrogation of two Algerian activists, one of whose sisters is at one point dragged into the cell.

Mesrine’s commanding officer curtly hands him his firearm and instructs him to execute this woman in front of the suspects. Sweaty, trembling, Mesrine takes the gun but at the last moment turns it on the male captive and kills him instead. Instantly, we see the desperado’s origins: ruthless, brutal, yet insubordinate, and not ready to kill an unarmed woman.

Returning to France, Mesrine embarks on a serious professional career of crime, sponsored by gang-boss Guido, played by Gérard Depardieu, with shadowy links to the rightwing OAS.

He marries, has children, but in an ugly and violent scene pulls a gun on his terrified and disapproving wife and tells her he chooses his criminal pals over her and the kids. Taking up with a new woman, Jeanne Schneider (Cécile De France), Mesrine knocks over casinos and has to flee to Montreal, where the couple’s abortive kidnapping plan causes him to be banged up in a seriously brutal secure unit in Canada. But he escapes.

For Vincent Cassel, 42, Mesrine might be the high point of his career; he has exactly the right face for a sexy-tough French criminal – also capable of conveying an anxious self-doubt and a callow self-assertion.

Cassel might never get the kind of “Green Card” break into the heart of Hollywood that Depardieu had, and his appearance in Ocean’s Twelve as the unpleasant foreigner isn’t the same thing. But he’s still a stellar presence and makes the film one to watch.