Archive for August 3, 2009

Mesrine & Vincent Cassel

Posted in Film on August 3, 2009 by alexlarman

mesrineTo the unlikely surroundings of the Genesis Cinema, Whitechapel (the kind of place that sounds as if it’s going to be a fantastic arthouse cinema a la the Brixton Ritzy but, to be quite honest…isn’t) for a surprise double-bill of the two Mesrine films, starring Vincent Cassel as the titular anti-hero. The reason why it’s a surprise is that they’re not released until later in the month, but there was no special fanfare or reason why a nondescript East London cinema should be holding this kind of preview; nonetheless, it made for a fascinating four hours of cinema.
Jacques Mesrine is a legend in France, but an unknown quantity in the rest of the world. From inauspicious beginnings (a brutal career in Algeria; some small-time thuggery and robbery) he found himself becoming notorious as his criminal career prospered and his increasingly flamboyant escapades (including several apparently impossible prison breaks and audacious escapes, including, memorably, by kidnapping a judge during the middle of his trial) saw him become something of a Robin Hood figure in France, until, at least, his violent death in 1979, which is believed to have been something of a state-authorised execution.

Jean-Francois Richet, the director of the two Mesrine films (Killer Instinct and Public Enemy Number One) has done little of note beforehand, though I rather enjoyed his remake of Assault On Precinct 13. Here, marshalling what is evidently a very large budget, numerous locations (including France, Spain, the US and Canada) and an extremely talented cast, he makes something that, if not a Sergio Leone-esque masterpiece, is nonetheless a very capable piece of filmmaking. He is helped immeasurably by Vincent Cassel’s brilliant performance as Mesrine, a character who is, alternately, charming, likeable, highly sympathetic, thuggish, loathsome and tragic. Cassel is probably the greatest French actor of his generation, and one of the very few who has any kind of real international clout; in this, which is probably his best appearance to date, he manages to make Mesrine a truly compelling protagonist. He’s ably supported by a brilliant cast including Gerard Depardieu (avoiding self-parody in a very Brando-esque role as Guido, the local Mob boss), Bond baddie Mathieu Amalric, the very sexy Ludivine Sagnier and Cecile de France as the two key women in Mesrine’s life, and many others.

If you want four hours of shoot-outs, escapes, chases and action, you’re not going to be disappointed. If you’re looking for a more in-depth examination of Mesrine’s character and what makes him tick, you may be; Cassel and Richet appear to suggest that he was motivated by a desire for fame, self-aggrandisement and the indulgent trappings of his lifestyle (all of which looks rather fun), but some late developments that appear to suggest that he wanted to get involved in more political movements seem half-thought through, as if the filmmakers were uncertain as to whether to suggest that Mesrine had any convictions whatsoever, other than criminal ones. And watched all in one go, this exceptionally rich banquet can be rather overwhelming. Yet this is still a hugely watchable, highly enjoyable experience, with a fantastic lead performance that makes this lengthy journey a compelling one.