It is tough to be a gangster. Sure, the life can be glamorous and filled with excitement if you are really good at what you do, but as one character informs the audience in Mesrine: Killer Instinct (directed by Jean-Francois Richet), the best you can hope for is to be able to run a nice bar in your golden years. Even that character doesn’t make it to the end of the movie.
Vincent Cassel plays Jacques Mesrine, a Robin Hood like figure whose criminal career apparently became legendary in his native France. Like all gangsters, he started small and climbed his way up. After returning from Algeria where he was a soldier, he decides to follow his criminal friend Paul (Gilles Lellouche) around instead of taking a job from his father. He becomes a crafty burglar and gets the attention of a local mob boss called Guido (Gerard Depardieu). At first Mesrine is not intimated by a man he sees as inferior because of his age, but he should mind his sidearm since the old man is still a good pickpocket. Guido gives him some valuable life lessons and valuable protection. Life is good and it is getting better.
From burglary Mesrine graduates to bank robbery. He is not infallible since he is eventually caught, causing a strain on his domestic life. His wife wants him to quit his job or else she will run away and takes the kids. He tries for a while, but old habits die hard.
As Mesrine grows bolder, he robs from the wrong people and even Guido cannot protect him. He flees France and tries his luck in Quebec, Canada. With his new girlfriend Jeanne Schneider (Cécile de France) he becomes a headline sensation after kidnapping a millionaire and going on the run all the way to Arizona. The papers love them and paint them as the new Bonnie and Clyde. At the airport in Montreal, they smile at the crowd as though they were movie stars and in the heat of the moment Mesrine says to the cameras: “Vive le Québec libre” (Free Quebec). I am pretty sure General de Gaule had beaten him to the punch by a few years, but that statement probably gave him some new fans.
Unfortunately his fame leads him to a prison whose guards could have given the warden at Guantanamo Bay a few tips on how to torture prisoners. He is routinely beaten, gassed, hosed, blinded by the ceiling light, and deafened by a blaring siren. The guards were apparently trying to attack all five of his senses since of course the food seemed barely eatable at best.
Once back with the general population he finds a friend he met outside, Jean-Paul Mercier a member of the FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec) played by Roy Dupuis. Together they hatch a daring plan to escape, which is both amazing in its simplicity and boldness. The best however comes when Mesrine and Mercier decide to try break back into the prison in order to help others escape. No wonder he became public enemy number 1: he must have been the only criminal crazy enough to attack a prison in broad daylight with nothing but a pickup truck and two assault rifles.
Despite all his fame and flash, the movie does not paint Mesrine as a hero. He is in it for the money and will cause harm to anyone who gets in his way. The way he treats his wife when she threatens to rat him out to the police even disgusts Guido. He could have indulged her and quit his life of crime, but it is clear that he enjoyed it too much.
As far as gangster movies goes, Mesrine: Killer Instinct could probably rank somewhere between Scarface and Carlito’s Way. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but knows which way it spins.