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STUDIO: Music Box Films
MSRP: $34.95 each
RATED: R
RUNNING TIME: 247 minutes
SPECIAL FEATURES:
• English Dubbed Version Audio

The Pitch

Bonfellas

The Humans

Starring Vincent Cassel, Cecile de France, Gerard Depardieu, Gilles Lellouche, Roy DuPuis, Elena Anaya, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric, Georges Wilson
Written by Abdel Raouf Dafri
Directed by Jean-Francois Richet

The Nutshell

After a brutal stint fighting for France in the Algerian War, Jacques Mesrine (Cassel) comes home only to feel completely stifled and bored. Naturally, he goes out with an old buddy of his who happens to work for the local crime boss (Depardieu). The following nearly-four hours follows Mesrine over the next twenty-plus years of his life as he weds (Anaya), robs banks with pals (DuPuis, Amalric), breaks out of prison, and causes general melee throughout France in the 1960s and 1970s.

Alphonse didn’t like pressure when he was doing the dishes, a duty he took seriously. Dead serious… ly.

The Lowdown

Not many cinematic tales require two films to tell their story. Usually you find a standalone film that, once successful, gets the typical trilogy extension to truly milk it for all its worth – see: Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix, Avatar, etc. Occasionally movies though are just too long to be one film, needing two two-hour long pieces to complete the narrative puzzle, not like a traditional sequel but to literally complete the same story that began in the first film. Really, the only similar title that comes to mind is Kill Bill, which separated its two installments with the “Volume 1″ and “Volume 2″ monikers. I have some issues with Tarantino’s decisions in those flicks, which means that, including the two Mesrine films – Killer Instinct and Public Enemy Number One – I’d say there’s a good reason why the duology is a celluloid rarity: much of what happens in one of the halves is far inferior to the others’.

Which is too bad because Killer Instinct is nearly a classic. Sure, it follows the rags-to-crime-lord-riches genre to a tee, but it just does it all so well. Action pieces, memorable characters, shoot-outs, robberies, jailbreaks, sex, Paris. All the makings of a flick that earns a spot on your discerning, crowded shelf next to the TV.  On its own, it’s still a fun ride even if it’s not quite a fully realized story. Yet the filmmakers did find a logical beat on which to end the first installment that creates its own experience, independently enjoyed without necessarily having to see the culmination in part two.  This reality hits home even harder once you see part deux and wish you hadn’t bothered. (I’m going to continue to review both films together because they’re meant to true halves to one whole rather than a typical sequel.)

Based solely on Todd Philips’ cameos, you’d never guess that he was so convincing as a French bank robber.

Filmmakers Richet and Dafri separate the two film not only by chronology but also by focusing the action through different thematic prisms. Killer Instinct about family, exploring whether Mesrine can handle keeping his growing family happy and safe while he continues to get deeper and deeper in the crime world. This gets especially difficult as he gets closer to his fellow criminals with whom he lives with in prison, who become his other family. Plus, he’s got a serious detachment with any sense of true emotions aside from those that affect his pride and ego making him, empirically, a terrible son and equally bad husband. Mesrine’s charm remains intact, however, which keeps us rooting for him along the way.

Public Enemy Number One studies the notion of public identity, spending the run-time offering scenarios for us to determine whether Mesrine is simply an unscrupulous thug who robs banks with impunity or a revolutionary with an ideological fight against the system. An interesting notion but one that doesn’t provide enough dramatic tension to sustain the string of string of robberies, shootouts, arrests, breakouts, rinse and repeat as needed — which ends up being fairly often since it’s nearly two hours long and its gotta be filled with something. The two sources of emotional connection with Mesrine in this film are his family – embodied in two scenes by his dying father and his estranged daughter, both of whom harbor no ill will toward him despite his being pathologically horrid to both of them throughout their lives – and his new love, Sylvia, who apparently was a prostitute who fell in love with him. Now, she seems perfect for him: no talk of kids, she doesn’t get pregnant, she doesn’t talk about wanting kids or even wanting to get married, and she clearly has zero issues with Mesrine being the vicious outlaw that he is. Even after he pulls the typical alpha male asshole move of smacking her around when his jealousy gets the better of him, she forgives and forgets, never becoming that bitter lover that his ex-wife did – and whom we never see again. Throw in his creepy comrade, Francois Besse (the always solid Mathieu Amalric), and the whole charade just feels cold and sterile, just not much here on which to latch our emotional interest.

Just another day at Kitchen Nightmares: Guantanamo Bay.

Since I’ve brought up Amalric, might as well talk about all of the actors: they’re fantastic. All around effortless, believable performances by heavy hitters like Gerard Depardieu, Roy DuPuis, Cecile de France, Ludivine Sagnier, and Georges Wilson. But these two films are all Vincent Cassel and he owns every single scene he’s in. The guy has pheromones so potent that they manage to emanate out of the television set. His charm lies in that childlike mischevious look that he still throws around at everyone, where you’re slightly creeped out because he might be a total maniac, but you can’t help but like him anyway. It’s the ideal personality make-up to embody a character who must’ve been seductive as hell to pull off everything he did. And what a character he was. He was fascinating in Killer Instinct, from the opening scene set during the Algerian War that sets the tone for the brutality that follows – or, rather, that ensues – through moments of tenderness where he falls in love and starts a family to the thrills of his bold, brash bank robberies to his capture and imprisonment and ultimate escape. And then to the promise that he kept to his fellow inmates that leads to the climactic scene, one that never gets topped in the rest of the two films. Mesrine is dynamic, unstable, barreling toward oblivion and we just don’t know when that’s going to happen or how. It’s an exhilarating ride.

The filmmakers didn’t take many liberties with the Mesrine story, except the whole giving him a Manitou-like twin growing out of his shoulder.

And then he loses all of those qualities in round two. Actually, that’s not true: Mesrine’s still unstable and rushing full-tilt into total chaos through his own megalomania (unlike so many of these tales that end up having the main character dive down the dark rabbit hole of drug use); he just doesn’t do much changing in this installment. He has no arc. In fact, while the shootouts and car chases and everything are all expertly staged and thoroughly entertaining, we’ve seen all of this before. Nothing beats the prison break sequence at the end of Killer Instinct, which leaves everything a bit wanting in the second film, especially when it’s pretty much just a string of prison breaks with some filler about political ideology and the role of the press. None of that is as compelling as Mesrine battling his own personal sense of responsibility and tangling with both his fellow criminal pals and the police. Everything’s too easy for him in Public Enemy Number One — he has his way with everyone, everywhere, including a ridiculous scene where he manages to get a gun into the courtroom during his arraignment, taking the judge hostage, and makes his escape.

What truly takes the eye-rolling cake with scoff icing is when, for seemingly zero reason whatsoever, Mesrine’s lawyer – who we never get to know and have only really seen once before – brings a briefcase of guns into a maximum security prison (how she got them past security was never explained, of course) to aid Mesrine in his escape. Sure, it made for an exciting sequence of events, but it’s just absurd. It felt like in the first movie, everything was up to Mesrine to figure out and accomplish himself, while in this one, the invisible hands of the screenwriter were felt weighing down everything like a lead blanket, setting everything up in Mesrine’s favor in unrealistic fashion.

Best beard ever or worst beard ever?

While the first film was aptly compared to Goodfellas, the second one is more of a twisted superhero film. While the ending followed what you’d expect for a character like this, everything else felt impossible, like we all of a sudden were watching some fantasy, as if this were how the real, delusional Mesrine himself saw his exploits. (Mesrine actually did pen his own memoirs during one of his first stints in the clink, which served, ironically, as fodder for Killer Instinct — the more grounded-in-reality of the two films.) The interesting part of it all is that those two totally absurd scenes – the judge-as-hostage and the gun-smuggling lawyer – actually happened. I’m sure it could’ve been done in a way that had them work better, like, perhaps, had we seen some of the goings-on behind the scenes of these friends of his who helped plant the gun in the bathroom and the guards at the prison that let the lawyer in with those weapons. Instead, the filmmakers most likely had to cut that out in order to fit everything in. But I don’t think that this series would’ve necessarily been superior had they been longer, rather that, had the filmmakers taken more liberties with the subject matter, they could’ve combined the two films into one, three-hour long epic that would’ve trumped the two they made. Sometimes less is more.

As it stands, though, Mesrine is one half of near greatness that gets pulled down back to earth with the unsuccessful second half.

If they ever do a live-action version of Family Guy where Stewie is all grown up, I’d say Cassel has the role in the bag.

The Package

Both films look incredible. The cinematography is superb, making this one that truly benefits from the high-def transfer. It’s too bad that there aren’t any special features whatsoever on either disc. Some Making Ofs or even a Featurette on the real Mesrine would’ve been nice. Anything would’ve been nice. But this is about as bare-bones as it gets.

Killer Instinct Rating:
★★★★☆

Out of a Possible 5 Stars


Public Enemy Number One Rating:
★★½☆☆

Out of a Possible 5 Stars


Total: Rating:
★★★☆☆

Out of a Possible 5 Stars


“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”