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Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010

Mesrine

Vincent Cassel, Gerard Depardieu in two-part crime drama

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What Hollywood has forgotten, France remembers. Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 are a set of stylish crime dramas whose central characters bear the weight of sad destiny and unfortunate decisions. They are not half-ironic exercises but filmed as fully moving experiences—a story not long enough for a trilogy but uncontainable within the normal length of a single movie.

Director-writer Jean-Francois Richet shot the films from the autobiography of Jacques Mesrine, one of France’s most notorious criminals in the 1960s and ’70s; whether the narrator is reliable is a question for another day. His story provides Richet with the material for an old-school Hollywood action film in a francophone setting, as well as roles for a pair of great actors, Vincent Cassel as Mesrine and Gerard Depardieu as Guido, his godfather.

Guido is a feudal lord at the heart of his crime fiefdom. Mesrine has no center but himself and must evolve over the course of the film on many levels—as a romantic ladies’ man and crook, a doting father and a killer. We meet him at the start of Killer Instinct in 1959 as a reluctant French army torturer during the dirty war between France and Algerian rebels. Back home and out of uniform, he’s revealed as a slick guy with easy charm, and he slips into petty crime. Discovered by the owners of the house he is burglarizing, Mesrine impersonates a police detective investigating the break-in. At first the tight coil of violence within him is both curbed and triggered by a code: He doesn’t care for men who abuse or disrespect women and will leave them in pain—or in the grave. But after his final failure to make it in the straight world, all restraints seem to fall away.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct
takes place against the lustrous neon of urban nightlife in a decade when elegance and style remained important in pop culture; the period detailing is superb. Mesrine angrily rejects the homecoming from Algeria he receives from his parents—the cozy prospect of a lifetime job at a lace-making firm and a respectable role in the middle class. The world Mesrine seeks will be wider in scope than that of his parents. He sets out to be a rebel whose cause is mostly himself.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (Part 1)
screens 9:45 p.m. Sept. 29 and 5 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Oriental Theatre. Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (Part 2) screens at 9:45 p.m. Sept. 30 and 9:30 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Oriental Theatre.