Senior HTF Member
- Feb 12, 1998
- Real Name
- Michael Reuben
Mesrine: Killer Instinct
Mesrine: Public Enemy #1
Jacques Mesrine (pronounced “may-REEN”) was an outlaw and gangster whose celebrity in France ranks with that of John Dillinger, Clyde Barrow and Al Capone in America. Mesrine was every bit as colorful and legendary, but he lived forty years later, when gangster films and modern media had even more power over the public imagination. Mesrine knew how to exploit those images and associations. He relished his celebrity status, giving interviews to journalists and brandishing guns for photos, even as every policeman in France was hot on his trail. During one of his stays in prison (he broke out four times), he wrote an autobiography, L’Instinct de Mort, which translates as both “The Death Instinct” and “Killer Instinct”. He was known for contacting (and sometimes threatening) journalists who got facts about him wrong, and especially in his later career, he liked to dress up his criminal activities with political rationales derived from extremist elements such as the ultra-radical Baader-Meinhof Group.
In short, Mesrine was a theatrical, over-the-top personality tailor-made for the movies. When director Jean-François Richet (who directed the remake of Assault on Precinct 13), producer Thomas Langmann and screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri (A Prophet) joined to bring Mesrine’s life to the screen, they quickly realized that one film wasn’t enough to contain such a complex character. Instead, they conceived a pair of films, which were shot simultaneously in a nine-month marathon, but were always intended to be separate and self-contained. The first, entitled Killer Instinct, chronicles Mesrine’s rise as an underworld figure. It’s the equivalent of the Robert DeNiro sections of Godfather 2.
The second part, entitled Public Enemy #1, catches up with Mesrine after he came into his own as a public figure and popular legend. Public Enemy #1 might be comparable to the original Godfather, except that Mesrine never lived as long as Vito Corleone, nor did he have the patience to build a criminal empire. Indeed, the second film is closer in spirit to what Michael Mann’s similarly named portrait of John Dillinger, Public Enemies, aspired to be and failed: the chronicle of a man who was too restless and rebellious – and who too much enjoyed being himself – ever to settle down and run an organization.
The two films won 2009 César awards (the French Oscar) for their director and for star Vincent Cassel, whose personification of Jacques Mesrine belongs in the same legendary category with Al Pacino’s Scarface, James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano and the iconic mobsters played by DeNiro and Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s films.
Studio: Music Box Films Home Entertainment
Film Length: 113 min.; 134 min.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: French DTS-HD MA 5.1; English DTS-HD MA 5.1*
MSRP: $34.95 for each title
Disc Format: 1 25GB for each title
Theatrical Release Dates: Oct. 22 & Nov. 19, 2008 (France); Aug. 29 & Sept. 3 2010 (U.S.)
Blu-ray Release Dates: Feb. 22 & Mar. 29, 2011
*Both the disc and the jacket for Killer Instinct mistakenly list the sound format as Dolby Digital, but both titles have soundtracks encoded in DTS-HD MA.
The film opens on November 2, 1979, the day of Mesrine’s death. Mesrine (Cassel) and his girlfriend Sylvie (Ludivine Sagnier), both disguised, are furtively packing their car for a getaway from the apartment where they’ve been hiding on the outskirts of Paris. As they drive away, a truck pulls in front of them near the Porte de Clignancourt. And then . . .
Cut to Algeria, 1959, where Mesrine served in the French military. During a scene of brutal interrogation, Mesrine discovers that there are limits to how far he will go. It’s the first glimpse of the “code of honor” for which he will later become known (though how truly honorable he was remains open to interpretation).
After completing his service, Mesrine returned home to welcoming parents, a pleasant home and a decent job. While Killer Instinct doesn’t belabor the point, Mesrine wasn’t driven to crime out of poverty. His upbringing was comfortable and solidly middle class. But he had little patience for the daily grind of earning a living, and he leaps at the opportunity when a childhood friend, Paul (Gilles Lellouche), suggests that Mesrine accompany him on “odd jobs, off the books”. The result is the burglary of a wealthy home that recalls young Vito Corleone’s first “job” with Clemenza. But here the episode has a very different outcome, one that reveals Mesrine’s fundamental gift for bravado, improvisation and “all in” commitment to finishing what he starts.
Mesrine’s work with Paul brings him to Paul’s boss, a worldly crime lord named Guido (Gérard Depardieu). It is Guido who completes Mesrine’s education in the ways of the underworld, and the relationship among Guido, Mesrine and Paul often echoes that of DeNiro’s Jimmy Conway with Henry Hill and Tommy in Goodfellas. Mesrine even finds himself caught in the same tug-of-war that Henry Hill experienced between his “friends” and his devoted wife, Sofia (Elena Anaya from Talk to Her), a Spanish beauty whom he meets and sweeps off her feet on holiday. Of course, the “friends” win every time.
[SIZE= 10px]Mesrine and Paul at Guido's club[/SIZE]
By the mid-Sixties, France had become too dangerous for Mesrine, especially after he began robbing the establishments of other hoodlums, often in the company of his mistress, Jeanne Schneider, the dark-haired Bonnie to his Clyde. (She’s played by Cécile De France, unrecognizable as the tsunami survivor in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter.) Following an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate him, Mesrine flees to Montreal with Jeanne in 1968, where she obtains legal immigrant status, but he is denied because of an already extensive criminal record.
In Montreal, Mesrine meets a kindred spirit: Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis), a career criminal with ties to the Quebec Liberation Front, or “FLQ”. They meet again in the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul prison, where Mesrine is sent after he and Jeanne unsuccessfully attempt a kidnapping and ransom of a textile millionaire who was foolish enough to hire them as housekeeper and chauffeur. Prison conditions are brutal, with new prisoners required to spend an initial period in solitary (or “SCU”) to break their spirit. Mesrine emerges from this ordeal not only unbroken, but determined to break out. He and Mercier do so, not with high-tech wizardry, but with a combination of bribery, misdirection, moxie and sheer luck. In an even more shocking act of defiance, they return and attack the prison a few weeks later, attempting to free the men who helped them escape. Mesrine had given his word he’d come back for them, and he was determined to remain a man of honor.
[SIZE= 10px] Mesrine and Jeanne greet the press[/SIZE]
Although a few more scenes are needed to wind up Mesrine’s adventures in the New World (and the full story is even more extended and colorful), the escape from Saint-Vincent-de-Paul is the real conclusion of Killer Instinct. It catapulted Mesrine into the front ranks of populist legend, and it put a political stamp on his criminal activities that Mesrine would continue to flash for the rest of his career, even when it was hard to justify. He had stood up for the victims of official state abuse and won. The fact that he immediately went back to robbing banks was a mere detail.
If you only know Vincent Cassel from his role as the prissy company dance master in Black Swan or the elusive thief in Ocean’s 12 and 13, you will be unprepared for the intensity he brings to the Mesrine films. Cassel is in almost every scene, and he often seems as if he’s about to burst through the frame. His Mesrine is a bundle of restless energy, even when he’s barely moving. Whatever he does, he does it at full tilt, whether it’s robbing a bank, killing an enemy, seducing a woman, or tossing a tip to the employees of a casino he’s just robbed. Even his cries of anguish when being tormented in solitary confinement are intense and primal, ripped from the animal depths of his being. Mesrine got away with so much because he held nothing back. Neither does Cassel.
The rest of the excellent cast merely has to react to this force of nature as their respective characters would. Depardieu’s Guido immediately spots the value of having an underling so intelligent and committed – and the danger, if he can’t be controlled. Elena Anaya’s Sofia is smitten by this mysterious stranger, and only too late, after she’s burdened with children, does she realize that the excitement carries a steep price. Cécile De France’s Jeanne coolly appraises Mesrine with the practiced eye of someone who’s been around the block repeatedly and thought she’d seen it all – until now. She literally can’t believe that life offers thrills she hasn’t yet experienced.
Although Music Box has finally adopted lossless audio (see below), they continue to resist the use of BD-50 discs, as if every title represented a compressionist’s challenge. Fortunately, in the case of Killer Instinct, the result hasn’t damaged the image. This is probably due to the facts that the film (1) is under two hours; (2) was shot mostly on 35mm (with a few sections in 16mm); (3) was finished on a digital intermediate, giving it a smooth, low-grain look; (4) has a 2.35:1 ratio, which means less picture information to store, due to the black bars at top and bottom; and (5) is unencumbered by any extras.
Richet’s DP on the Mesrine films was the American Robert Gantz, who’d worked with him on Assault on Precinct 13 and has extensive U.S. TV credits. Gantz shot the films in a clean, no-frills style that is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. By being relatively unobtrusive, Gantz’s camerawork gets the necessary energy into the frame without distracting the viewer from what’s happening on screen. (The precision cutting by editor Hervé Schneid, a veteran of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films, doesn’t hurt either.) Richet and Gantz consciously adopted predominant colors of black, red and blue for Killer Instinct, and these are most notable in the Parisian scenes, where Mesrine’s life is lived almost entirely at night in garishly lit clubs.
The Blu-ray’s image features excellent detail with blacks that are generally deep and only occasionally indistinct in certain scenes with dim lighting (apparently by design). Colors are often bright and artificially fluorescent, although some scenes (e.g., the establishing shots of Montreal) look beautifully natural. Despite the demands of compression required by a BD-25, I did not spot any indications of noise reduction or other digital artifacts (and, believe me, I was looking).
In addition to César awards for acting and direction, the Mesrine films won an award for sound, and the DTS lossless track presents the rich mixture in all its glory. Mesrine’s world is full of important noises, whether it’s traffic in the Porte de Clignancourt (just before everything goes eerily quiet); the sound of glasses, cards and chips in gambling establishments; the click of gun hammers in various places; the pop of flash bulbs as reporters press in; the roar of fire hoses in the SCU; or machine gun fire during a prison assault. Weaving through it all is the propulsively driving score overseen by American film composer Marco Beltrami and, for Killer Instinct, credited to Eloi Painchaud. (For the second film, Beltrami and fellow American Marcus Trumpp took direct credit.)
Public Enemy #1
The second Mesrine film opens at the same point as the first, but after the bloody shootout at the Porte de Clignancourt in which Mesrine died. (Many called it a police execution.) A shrieking Sylvie (Ludivine Sagnier) is taken away by paramedics; the film underplays it, but in fact she was badly injured. The official in charge, Comissioner Broussard (Olivier Gourmet), frantically directs officers and speaks to reporters. The final chapter of a legend is being written.
Cut to March 8, 1973, six and a half years earlier. Mesrine, now returned to France, is under arrest and giving a statement to police. The end result is one of Mesrine’s most famous and brazen stunts: an escape from custody by taking a judge hostage in a courtroom. The sequence is witty, tense and sets the tone for the rest of Public Enemy by portraying a man whose entire stance is contempt for the institutions of society. The Mesrine of Public Enemy is at war with everything around him, with one exception: he loves the media and the limelight.
Director Richet describes Public Enemy as “more frantic, with more plot lines, filmed more like a war movie”. The film is skillfully made and always involving, but after the simple, elegant “coming of age” arc of Killer Instinct, it can feel disjointed until you realize that the “through line” is Mesrine and his image. As Richet puts it, Mesrine “self-fuels his own legend for his own survival”, and that thread unites all the subplots, whether a spectacular escape, a daring robbery, or any of the outlandish speeches to reporters or packed courtrooms.
[SIZE= 10px]Mesrine enters La Santé prison[/SIZE]
Mesrine’s most sustained partnership in Public Enemy is with a notorious escape artist, François Besse (Mathieu Amalric, who was underused as Mr. Green in Quantum of Solace but shines here). The two men meet in La Santé maximum security prison after Mesrine is arrested by Commissioner Broussard (in typical fashion, Mesrine turns the event into a spectacle, greeting Broussard with champagne and a toast). It was during this stay that Mesrine wrote his autobiography, L’instinct de Mort, but he also began plotting an escape with Besse that is even more elaborate than the Canadian jailbreak portrayed in Killer Instinct. The incident caused a scandal in France, because Mesrine managed to obtain guns even inside La Santé. Director Richet stages the episode in elaborate detail and with a precision that puts many contemporary action directors to shame.
[SIZE= 10px] Mesrine and Besse plot their escape[/SIZE]
After their escape, Mesrine and Besse rob a casino in Deauville and flee across the countryside, and here is where Richet begins to play with the audience’s sympathies. During the prison escape, the audience naturally identifies with the men trying to get away. But as Mesrine and Besse attempt to evade their pursuers from Deauville, they take a farm family hostage, and suddenly the perspective shifts. Now this popular hero of the people begins to look more like a psychopath (albeit a charming one), and our sympathies begin to dissipate. Before long, Mesrine and Besse are having furious arguments about their future plans. Mesrine wants to use stolen money to buy weapons and attack “the system”, but Besse won’t hear of it. He wants “the system” just as it is, so that he can continue stealing from it. Eventually, they part ways.
Some of the most pointed encounters in the film occur when Mesrine kidnaps a rich slumlord, Henri Lelièvre (Georges Wilson), for ransom. Though elderly, the hostage turns out to be a tough, wily sonuvabitch. In addition to negotiating his own ransom, Lelièvre looks Mesrine straight in the eye and tells him the truth. You’re not a revolutionary, he tells him. A true revolutionary would shoot me in the head, not ask for money. You’re just like me; you like nice things, and you don’t mind squeezing people to get them.
It’s understandable that Mesrine’s last girlfriend, Sylvie, was so much younger, because an older and more experienced woman would have seen right through his charm to the manipulator beneath. Ludivine Sagnier gives Sylvie a child-like simplicity combined with a sexual precocity that would have been irresistible to someone like Mesrine. The scene where he spots her on the street and follows her into a bar crackles with intensity, even though Mesrine is clearly too old for her and, at that point, not even especially attractive.
[SIZE= 10px]Mesrine and Sylvie[/SIZE]
As Public Enemy nears its conclusion, there’s a rising sense of desperation as Mesrine grasps at ever more tenuous means to keep his legend alive. The sequence in which he attacks Jacques Dallier (Alain Fromager), a conservative journalist and former policeman, is particularly unsavory (and, in real life, represented a turning point in Mesrine’s public image). Having baited the French authorities so frequently and so openly, Mesrine had triggered the mobilization of vast forces whose sole purpose was ending his career. By the time the film returns to Porte de Clignancourt for its conclusion, Mesrine’s ability to sustain his legend is leaking out of him faster than the blood flowing from his numerous bullet wounds. Richet ends his two-part saga with neither a bang nor a whimper, but somewhere in between, leaving the viewer to sort out interesting questions and conflicting feelings.
Public Enemy is two hours, fourteen minutes long – 21 minutes longer than Killer Instinct – and it has two lossless audio tracks. Surely, you’re thinking, Music Box Films finally broke down and used a BD-50 for this one.
Nope. Apparently, in Music Box’s world, BD-50s are so precious that one has to rob a bank to afford them. (Never mind that publishers like Magnolia, MPI, Anchor Bay, Kino and Image use them routinely, and yet somehow manage to avoid both crime and bankruptcy.)
The visual strategy for Public Enemy differs from that of Killer Instinct in that the figure of Mesrine more commonly dominates the frame, consistent with his growing reputation. The color scheme, previously dominated by black, red and blue, is now predominantly black, brown and orange.
Despite the shortage of digital real estate, the image on the Blu-ray of Public Enemy is reasonably comparable in quality to that of the first film, with perhaps a touch less detail, particularly in darker scenes. Whether this is due to the lighting and color scheme or to compromises associated with the demands of compression is something I could not determine. Except for occasional minor “banding” on dissolves and scene transitions, I did not notice any compression-related artifacts. In general, the skill of the compressionist responsible for Public Enemy must be acknowledged, but the fact remains that no film of this length should be treated on Blu-ray in this manner.
By contrast, the DTS lossless audio track is superb and fully brings home the depth and detail of the film’s award-winning sound work. Sequences like the escape from La Santé, the Deauville casino heist (which involves major gunplay), the flight across the countryside and the shootout that ended Mesrine’s life are dramatic and powerful. Quieter scenes such as the standoff when Broussard arrests Mesrine or the scenes inside La Santé have details of ambient sound placed throughout the sound field. This is a wonderful track, subtly and elegantly mixed. The score, credited to Beltrami and Trumpp, is well represented and perfectly suits the film
No special features other than trailers are included, which is unfortunate, because the French four-disc “ultimate” version lists several features, including a “making of” and a photo gallery. Indeed, given the length of the shoot and the notoriety of the film in France, it’s hard to believe that a wealth of supplemental material doesn’t exist. Then again, when a publisher insists on limiting its Blu-ray production to BD-25s, there isn’t much room for supplements, is there?
Trailers. The same trailers appear on both discs. Music Box created a single American trailer for both films, and it is available as a separate extra. At startup both discs play trailers for Potiche, Bride Flight, Largo Winch and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button or the “top menu” button. All are separately available from the features menu.
The gangster film may seem like a purely American institution, and certainly there is a type of gangster, the kind that arises from a disenfranchised immigrant population, that is familiarly American. The Godfather trilogy and Once Upon a Time in America are classics of the genre. But there is another type of gangster, one exemplified by Jacques Mesrine. As director Richet explained:
In France, we like characters who say no. France was built out of protest - the revolution, the Paris Commune, May ‘68. Mesrine is a sort of anarchist, a dissident. We like those characters. Jacques Mesrine is the guy who doesn't want to get labeled and boxed.
America also likes these characters, but we usually find them on the frontier in a town like Deadwood or, in the modern era, roaring down the open road, as in Easy Rider. Occasionally we can tolerate them committing crime in a contemporary setting, but only for a higher moral purpose and if no one is badly injured (see Dalton Russell in Inside Man). A character like Mesrine is a challenge for American audiences, because he is indisputably a bad, bad man. But even if you’d never want to have Jacques Mesrine to dinner, there’s still something irresistibly fascinating about his uncompromising desire not to be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.
[SIZE= 10px]The real Jacques Mesrine[/SIZE]
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Acoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub