VINCENT CASSEL MAKES A MESMERIC GANGSTER
It takes director Jean-Francois Richet two films spanning four hours to encapsulate the life of notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine, who was finally killed by the Parisian police in November 1979 after a two-decade run as bank robber, jail breaker and public enemy number one. Technically polished, structurally episodic and always thrilling, Mesrine I & II remind you of the two Che movies -- for although one was a gangster with no greater ambition than looting banks and living the good life with his booty, and the other was a revolutionary who dreamt of uniting all of South America one day, both were brought down by their fatal flaw, hubris.
Like the Che saga, the first film chronicles Mesrine's stunning rise in the French underworld and his daredevil stunts both while robbing banks and escaping from prison. In the second film, the swagger and the tone gets more pronounced, the lust for fame too strong to resist at any cost and a maniacal recklessness takes over his personality, unlike the first, where he's considerably controlled. Vincent Cassel dons the chameleon-like part to dazzling effect. He's charming, ruthless, snaky and strangely endearing all at once. His performance, coupled with Richet's spectacular set-ups and high-tension sequences puts the Mesrine films right at the top of the gangster genre, not far behind the epic scale of Godfather I and II.
Of great sociological interest is the fact that Mesrine hailed from a fairly comfortable middle-class family with reasonably caring parents who seem concerned about their son's errant ways. So, when he returns from Algeria in 1959, his father tries to get him a steady job. But Jacques is already dreaming of a fast life and easy money. Throughout his tempestuous journey over the next 20 years, he hooks up with different partners both professionally and personally and stays loyal to them while the relationships last. But there's always a hint of menace lurking under the surface and even when he's making love to the many attractive women who fall under his spell with shocking regularity, we wonder when he's going to draw a gun or strangle someone.
After his Algerian stint, Mesrine's baptism in the underworld happens under the tutelage of a big-daddy (Gerard Depardieu) in a typically tense scene where both first threaten to kill each other before shaking hands and becoming friends. And his friends do matter a great deal to Jacques, as his beautiful Spanish wife and mother of his three kids discovers in the first film. She keeps trying to wean him away from his friends and a life of crime. At one point, after the birth of his daughter, he even goes straight and gets a regular job. But not for long. And when his wife tries to stop him, he shoves a gun into her mouth and chillingly informs her that if he has to choose between his friends and her, he'd choose them.
After being hunted down in France and breaking free in a sensational courthouse scene where he takes the judge hostage and walks out brandishing a gun, the action shifts to Montreal where, once again, Jacques makes a brief stab at an honest living. Before long, he's back to robbing banks and lands up in solitary confinement in a notorious prison. In some of the most harrowing scenes in the film, we see the jail authorities torture him relentlessly in a bid to break his spirit. But the minute they let him loose in the yard, Jacques is back to his old ways and already plotting his escape. Which, he not only achieves, but, in a typical show of bravado, returns with his prison mate (Roy Dupuis) in an unsuccessful bid to storm the jail and release his other friends. Jacques gets shot in the leg, but there's nothing that can stop the man except death.
Which, even at the peak of his megalomania in the second film, he knows is inevitable. But meanwhile, he's following his own increasing reputation in the media with great interest, doling out magazine interviews and watching the television news around his activities. Finally, the commissioner of police realises that there's no point arresting this man -- he's already escaped from prison four times! The first film begins at the end of the story with a wonderful split-screen delineation of the minutes leading up to Mesrine's assassination on a busy Parisian intersection. The entire sequence is then played out almost in actual time again at the end of the second film. Even though we already know what's going to happen, it's breathtaking to watch.
If these two films were not based on facts, they would have seemed too outrageous for their own good. Can you imagine a fictional criminal writing his autobiography in prison and confessing to 40 murders which would obviously send him straight to the gallows, and then escaping to continue his life of crime for a few more years, thereby cocking a snook at the establishment which he holds in absolute contempt? You wouldn't believe it.
Mesrine actually did it!