Crime movies work on a that-looks-like-fun principle. Bank robberies look exhilarating, so they’re ok. Ditto driving a stolen car, or taking consequence-free drugs. Not having to pay taxes is obviously a big middle-class turn-on. Chain smoking without fear of opprobrium is hot stuff. We all want the veneer of being a criminal, in essence. That’s what good crime movies give us. Mesrine: Killer Instinct works because Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) only commits sexy crimes. He’s what we want in a criminal: passionate, well-dressed, electric in bed. Even when he’s shooting up a prison, he does it with élan.
Like most contemporary French movies, we start with a nod to Algeria – that nest of bourgeois guilt and recrimination. Sure enough, Private Mesrine is being ordered to do something reprehensible to an Algerian. And soon enough, the moral rot of the place has him demobbed and burglarising French homes. It’s the Sixties, and Mesrine’s collaborator father can’t offer him a decent paterfamilias. Instead, he looks to Guido (Gerard Depardieu), who has become boss of bosses (seemingly) off the back of a pie-eating contest. With a flair for violence and one of those I-don’t-hurt-girls moral codes (the former, sadly, a lot more reliable than the latter), Mesrine shafts his way up the ranks, cool as steel and reckless as shrapnel.
You look at Vincent Cassel and (aside from thinking: I want to be him!) you think: French. Cassel couldn’t look more Gallic if he was reading Sartre in a picket line outside a cigarette factory. Something about the distance between his eyes, the nose that looks like it was built for manual labour, his argumentative mouth. Cassel is man who emanates late nights, gymnastic sex, real food, passion, art… and everything else the world fantasises about France. As Mesrine, he seems to commit crimes in a way that shames you for not having the balls. There’s a maturity to his anger – a seriousness – that makes you feel as if your honest wage is really moral cowardice. Even when Mesrine is in prison, it’s the guards who look like bad guys.
I should apologise at this juncture for the “pie-eating” crack about Gerard Depardieu. His years as France’s premiere celebrity gourmand have taken their toll, but the hell with it. At a time when tofu reigns supreme in Hollywood, it’s heartening to see star who likes cheese. Yes, he’s a big man, but he’s Brando-big, and his size doesn’t swaddle his charisma. As Guido, he plays every scene like a man who’s done unspeakable things countless times. When he surreptitiously disarms Cassel during their first encounter, you see the pleasure he takes in reminding the young crook which of them is more experienced. He’s the devil, called back from retirement.
If the class-warfare, shame-of-Algeria aspect of Mesrine remains indistinct, it’s probably due to star power. Much like the real Jacques Mesrine, you get the feeling the movie wants to Make a Statement, but mostly says: Jacques rocks! Mesrine doesn’t come across as a man who thought about his actions (you don’t open fire on a prison you’ve just escaped from if you’re the cerebral type). He wasn’t even in France for the riots of ’68. Any attempt to make him a working-class hero (as with the John Dillinger legend) relies on reading a socialist agenda into his brazenly self-interested antics. Luckily, Mesrine is mostly about a bad guy having fun.
Whether anyone who knew Jacques Mesrine would recognise him from this movie is beside the point. He’s the latest in long line of screen n’er-do-wells we love. Most of us – faced with an attack on a heavily guarded prison, or a stick-up in a fancy restaurant – would falter in our resolve, thinking: what if something goes wrong? But screen criminals exist to show us bullet-proof grit. Not for them the “Ow! Ow! Ow! That hurts! I think I’ve pissed myself!” of us middle-class weaklings (when grazed by a ricochet). Instead, these anti-heroes tie their bandages fashionably and shoot back with joie de vivre.