If all American audiences know of Vincent Cassel is his work in “Black Swan” or “Ocean’s 12,” they are missing a huge portion of his work. A well respected actor in his native France, his body of work is distinct and varied as any of his contemporaries of the ‘90s. One of these days I will speak of his androgynously fantastic work in the 18th century martial arts cult film “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” but I want to talk about his stunning performance in the “Mesrine” saga.
The two films that make up the work—“Mesrine: Killer Instinct” and “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1”—trace the adult life of Jacques Mesrine, a notorious French gangster of the 60s and 70s. The first part, “Killer Instinct” was based on the book written by Mesrine himself and chronicles his life from discharge from the military in Algiers up to his first jail break in Quebec. “Public Enemy #1” picks up a few years later with his spree of bank robberies, kidnappings and more jail breaks in France up to his death in the streets by Parisian cops.
Of the two, “Killer Instinct” is the better movie. While epic in scope, it moves through the times lean and swift. Even the opening—which foreshadows the end of the second movie—is deftly handled and sets the pace for the rest of the film. The supporting cast is at the top of their game and great foils for each other and Cassel, each bringing their own energy to the roles. Gerard Depardieu is a stoic and forceful presence as Guido, gangster mentor to Mesrine. Gilles Lellouche as Paul is the closest in match to Mesrine’s energy but never outdoes him. Cecille De France as his lover/criminal partner Jeanne Schneider is an icy cool Bonnie to Mesrine’s Clyde. But it is Cassel who holds court in both films with his incredible performance. Cassel really takes the persona of Mesrine and runs with it full tilt. In some ways that’s the only way to do Mesrine: equal parts braggadocio and menace, Mesrine was famous for the exploits he was able to pull off. Cassel does this but he finds the complexities of the man and brings us close to understanding why he became what he was. Some of the Cassel’s best work is in the moments when Mesrine is trying to go straight. The job interview is a study in how to bring everything you are to a room and make it work for you. The subsequent scene of him losing the job reminds me of the similar sequence with DeNiro’s in “The Godfather Part II” both in substance and craftwork.
“Public Enemy #1” is interesting because much of the purpose of that film is to tear down the myth that was already created. While we witness Mesrine at the height of his fame/infamy and continuation of many of his exploits, we also see how much of his self aggrandizing falters when faced with people who know the truth. Quite a bit of Mesrine’s talk of being a revolutionary rings false when he first says it, then truly turns to crap when faced with Charlie Bauer (played by Gerard Lanvin) who really believes the revolutionary philosophy. Screenwriters Abdel Raouf Dafri and Jean-Francois Richet (also the director of both films) structured the movies to showcase the rise and downfall of a criminal legend. It works but the build up was so much that it’s hard to see the tear down when it happens. More importantly, “Public Enemy #1” doesn’t have the built in back and forth questioning if he will continue the life of crime or not which enhanced the drama of “Killer Instinct.” After a while, knowing he will commit bank robberies and jail breaks with no looking back wears a little thin. But Cassel still moves us, if anything because he lets go of any sentimentality halfway through and becomes a character of pure amoral will: doing what he wants on his terms only. It’s a fierce portrayal that the rest of the film doesn’t really match up to.
There are times in a movie when you can absolutely tell an actor fully inhabits the role when you look at their eyes and all you see is the character. The best actors carry that through the entirety of the performance; Vincent Cassel carries it over the course of two movies and with near perfection. While the “Mesrine: Killer Instinct” should not be missed under any circumstance, both movies show the totality of the life of Mesrine and highlights what Cassel can do as an actor.
Note: the star rating above I listed for both pictures combined. The ratings for each film are as follows:
“Mesrine: Killer Instinct” 4 stars
“Mesrine: Public Enemy #1” 3 stars