Easter Weekend Viewing
As many of you know, I'm particularly fond of solid French crime films. There's something about the French variation on classic American gangster flicks that just gets me going. Back in the '50s and '60s, Jean-Pierre Melville (and a host of other directors) reworked standard American crime motifs and made them their own. The results were stunning – cold-as-ice French criminals in hardass films drained of their colour and morality. Count me in! Mesrine writer/director Jean-François Richet, whose previous credits include that lackluster remake of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, has gone a slightly different route than his predecessors, drawing instead from the Marty Scorsese-style of '90s American crime film making. Mesrine reminds of the epic-scaled Goodfella's/Casino era in its episodic structure and long rise-and-fall story arc.
A little back story on the character helps setup the plot. Jacques Mesrine was France's most notorious and famous contemporary gangster. The film follows his life from his time as a young soldier in Algeria to his rise as a petty Parisian thief and through his fame as an international criminal in the '70s. Strangely, a good number of those years were spent in Quebec - which I had no idea about - and much of the first part of the film is set there. He was a significant figure in Quebec in the late '60s having been involved in everything from kidnapping to bank robberies to prison escapes and was even loosely connected with the FLQ. I'll admit to a little embarrassment that I knew none of this going in. The Canadian and Quebec funding credits made a bit more sense once this became clear.
Mesrine is played by a perfectly-cast Vincent Cassel who infuses the character with both a mesmerizing, airy charm and a brutal, violent nastiness. The film pull no punches and succeeds admirably in balancing on the fine line between presenting Mesrine as an endlessly captivating figure while avoiding falling into the trap of glorifying his mostly-heinous actions. The first film is by necessity a tad procedural but the second is a gem. Not surprisingly, the first film feels a little too American in its structure and pacing at times while the second slows down the story and the whole project seems to return to its French roots. In addition to Cassel, the supporting cast is strong. Gérard Depardieu plays a crime boss and he's as big as a house here. Closer to home, Canadian actor Roy Dupuis (who played Romeo Dallaire in Shake Hands With The Devil and Maurice Richard in The Rocket) is excellent as Mesrine's co-criminal pal during his Quebec days.
It's certainly not without its flaws, but Richet, Cassel and Co. deliver a top-notch bit of violent escapism framed in an interesting story about a charismatic lunatic. Given our funding of this well-executed film, it's a little disappointing that the only way to see it is to order a copy from fucking Britain of all places. Typical.