Vincent Cassel snarls and swaggers his way into the acting big league with a lapel-grabbing central turn in this arresting, two-part French true-crime biopic (the second instalment opens on August 28). As Jacques Mesrine – the jail-springing, wife-beating, bank-robbing, kidnapping, Arab-hating, anti-establishment poster boy of post-war France (who’s also quite handy in the kitchen) – Cassel injects a jolt of wild energy and ambiguity into what could easily have been another flatulent, apologist gangster epic.
We open on a portentous title card declaring that any man’s life is too varied to be caught on film. The movie traces Mesrine’s rise up the criminal ranks in his home town of Clichy, outside Paris, in the 1960s. The heat builds and he flees to America and is extradited to French Canada where he pulls off a dashing escape from a brutal maximum-security prison in 1972.
The filmmakers offer us a splintered, contradictory portrait of a man who we see one moment calmly accepting his redundancy from an architecture firm and the next forcing a pistol into his wife’s mouth. Yes, Cassel has bagged the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ role that used to be reserved for Joe Pesci, but he plays it with a touch more depth, compassion and self-awareness.
On the downside, there’s a feeling that every scene strains to make a point. In one sweep, the film blames Mesrine’s behaviour on his brutal experiences in Algeria (where he assisted in torture), his over-lenient parents and the instability of the labour market. Yet, as the film gallops forward, a more interesting conflict develops, and our early reading of Mesrine as an over-confident, trigger-happy jester has to be rethought. This is in no small part down to Cassel’s textured and charismatic performance.
The pacing of the film is breakneck: scenes are so short that potentially fruitful characters like Mesrine’s rotund point man, Guido (Gérard Depardieu), and his kindly first wife, Sofia (Elena Anaya), get short shrift. The direction, too, from Jean-François Richet (‘Assault on Precinct 13’), is no-frills – the action is rudimentary and some moments resemble a TV movie.
But the cosmetic aspects of the film matter little: ‘Mesrine’ is about the personal ramifications of a life in crime. It’s about the inner loneliness of a mobster, the paranoia and pride that make if tough, even dangerous, to rely on associates and friends and how a simple public display of violence is all it takes to overtake your peers on the highway of immorality.
Watch our video interview with Cassel