Mesrine: Killer Instinct (Day 67)

Mesrine Part 1My Opinion: 6.8 || Good gangster biopic, but the direction and acting are more interesting than the subject matter. It’s the first part of a two-film set, and has a to-be-continued ending that (unavoidably) feels incomplete. Altogether: a familiar road that’s driven well — but that leads to an interchange rather than a destination.

TITLE: Mesrine: Killer Instinct (L’instinct de mort)
DIRECTOR: Jean-François Richet
LANGUAGE: French | COUNTRY: France
YEAR: 2008
PROFILE: Crime Drama | 113 minutes | IMDb (7.3)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of Netflix): This blistering biopic stars Vincent Cassel as notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine. The first in a duology, the film details the genesis of Mesrine’s career, including an incident in the army that gave him his first taste of violent power.

Strengths & Weaknesses: The cinematic world is not exactly lacking for stories about charismatic but hot-tempered gangsters. It may be that Mesrine’s story becomes more interesting in the second film, but there’s nothing very novel here, and he’s not a particularly sympathetic figure. It’s fine to have a protagonist who does nasty things — Travis Bickle, Michael Corleone — but the filmmaker needs to open a window on why. 


Because it’s a biopic, of course, the director Jean-François Richet isn’t free to invent explanations or ignore unlikeable aspects of Mesrine’s history. But he does need to find ways of eliciting the audience’s sympathy, or at least its stimulating its interest. Unfortunately, we never get much that explains Mesrine’s personality or that ties his story into larger themes. The result is that we spend the movie watching rather than understanding him.

Finally, there are inherent limitations that come with splitting a story across two movies. Richet succeeds in making us want to jump right into the second — but judged on its own terms Killer Instinct doesn’t feel like “a film” so much as the (in-depth) start of one.

Characters/Performances: That we like Mesrine at all is due mostly to Vincent Cassel’s top-notch performance. There’s not much on the page to make the character compelling, but Cassel is a magnetic actor, with a winning smile and capacity for menace.


Best Moment: The opening sequence is outstanding. Every future cinematic use of split screens should be measured against it. Combined with perfect scoring, it establishes excellent tension and kicks off the film brilliantly. If Richet could have matched this inventiveness and tone throughout the film (a tall order), it would have been a masterpiece.

File Under: bank robbery, prison, gangsters, escape, split screens, great openings, Vincent Cassel, Jean-François Richet