By ERIK ZOTTNICK
“Mesrine,” starring Vincent Cassell as the notorious French gangster, is a riveting, if at times uneven film for those in the mood for a slightly different kind of crime film.
The film is unflinching in its portrayal of Jacques Mesrine as an egotist, a murderer and a misogynist. Though he’s not without his charms, Cassell really sells the idea of Mesrine being a generally unlikeable man. “Nobody kills me until I say so,” Mesrine says with bravado.
The film opens with Mesrine, much later in his life, in his final moments on the streets of Paris. It flashes back to 1959 to his time in the French Army in a very graphic and harsh scene where Mesrine is ordered to kill a woman in a group of Algerians who are being interrogated. Things get both better and worse for him from here.
It shows his life as a gangster and famous criminal in quick vignettes. It also includes his initial descent into crime, several failed relationships, murders, incarcerations and escapes, ending with him on the run in Canada.
But this is just the first part of a two-part movie, with the second half covering the final years of his life. In this first half, much is made of Mesrine’s duality, sometimes literally with both mirrors and by splitting the screen, but also through his personality.
It’s not really psychologically deep, but gives us enough to understand the man to a degree. On one hand, he’s a cold man who stabs, shoots and beats his victims. At one point he even forces a gun into his own wife’s mouth.
On the other hand though, he’s charismatic, loving father and a natural leader. Cassell plays both sides equally well and very naturally. Just underneath a very cool and assured man lurks an ever-present promise of violence.
The film is beautifully shot, fluidly shifting between stylistic choices whenever it sees fit. Most impressive is the clever (and extensive) use of split-screen. As well, the music helps keep the mood appropriately tense or affecting when they need to be.
It can be hard to take in at times, as some scenes are extended and very brutal in their portrayal. There are many instances that ring true to well-tread gangster movie clichés, but they are presented freshly enough, and generally the film holds its own.
Though the film clips along in its episodic structure, we’re not left with too much context to place the events in. Somehow the overall pacing is a little slow. Too much is focused on in some sections, too little in others. It seems to lack some dramatic tension.
Ultimately, it’s Vincent Cassell’s charming and intensely watchable performance as the titular antihero that anchors the movie and makes it worth viewing.