Film Club: 'Mesrine: Killer Instinct'
First of Two-Part French Gangster Tale
Check out our KPBS Film Club of the Air discussion about the French gangster film, "Mesrine: Killer Instinct" (opening August 27 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas). Be listening Thursday morning for my interview with Vincent Cassel.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Joining me for the KPBS Film Club of the Air are Beth Accomando, KPBS film critic and author of the blog Cinema Junkie. Scott Marks is the author of the film blog emulsioncompulsion.com. And Anders Wright is the film critic for San Diego CityBeat. We move on. “Mesrine Killer Instinct” is the first of a two-part French film about real life gangster Jacques Mesrine. His career in crime flourished in the sixties and seventies and across two continents. We follow Mesrine from the start of his criminal life as a house thief in France to his media celebrity in Canada and beyond. Along the way, Mesrine acquires a Bonnie to his Clyde and a reputation for brutal violence. Scott, there are a lot of movies based on true stories of famous gangsters so does Jacques Mesrine rank in the area of Al Capone and Dillinger, do you think?
SCOTT MARKS (film critic, Emulsion Compulsion): What, the man himself?
MARKS: Oh, sure. I thought you were talking about the movies. I would much rather watch Rod Steiger as Al Capone any day. This isn’t a bad film, it’s just – it’s kind of every cliché that you’ve ever seen about prisoners short of the gun being carved out of soap and the guard falling out of the tower once he was shot, this is just a compendium of clichés. But it’s a very entertaining compendium and Vincent Cassel is just – He’s great scum.
BETH ACCOMANDO (film critic, KPBS): He’s great.
ANDERS WRIGHT (film critic, City Beat): He’s good, yeah.
MARKS: He is great scum, yeah.
WRIGHT: He’s nas – he is a nasty piece of work.
MARKS: Yeah. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Is – Beth, is Jacques Mesrine, is this character a compelling figure?
ACCOMANDO: Oh, yeah, I mean, he’s interesting because he kind of keeps morphing through the film. You know, there’s a scene early on where they’re robbing a house and he’s – he kind of seems like, oh, he’s kind of smart. He – Instead of shooting these people who break in on them while they’re robbing the house, he kind of pretends to be a cop and he outsmarts them and you think, oh, okay, maybe this is the kind of gangster he’s going to turn out to be. But then later there’s a point at which he has a fight with his wife that’s really brutal and scary and so, I mean, he keeps kind of changing, you keep kind of seeing different aspects of his character and Vincent Cassel is just great. I mean, I think he’s thoroughly entertaining to watch on one level and he does get to kind of the – he makes him interesting and likeable on a certain level and yet he doesn’t ignore the fact that this guy is also, you know, totally reprehensible.
MARKS: Thank you. Thank you.
WRIGHT: You know what I think is interesting, too, I – he’s also – There are times in which he’s completely brilliant where he’s got great ideas.
ACCOMANDO: Yeah, yeah.
WRIGHT: Where he acts quickly, things like that, and where he – they escape from prison. Other times where it’s just like what a stupid…
WRIGHT: …thing to do. He doesn’t have a lot of great ideas. He improvises all the time. But there’s this great sequence where they’re driving through Arizona and they’re being chased by a ton of cops and…
ACCOMANDO: Yeah, there’s nowhere to go.
WRIGHT: …there’s nowhere to go and there’s a roadblock and he just – he finally just says end of the line and he pulls over and he puts up his hands. He’s got nothing to do. He’s – Yeah.
ACCOMANDO: But you – And, I mean, you see this huge line of the road, you know, or of the freeway, the st – the road, with I don’t know how many, 20, 30 cop cars, and it’s just one straight line. There’s nowhere to go.
ACCOMANDO: Nowhere to turn off the road. There’s nowhere for him to possibly speed up and outrun them and escape them and that was good.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, I was – This is the first part…
CAVANAUGH: …of a two-part biopic, as I said. Is two parts of this, is this, oh, dare I say it, overkill? Anders?
WRIGHT: You know, when the first one ends you’re kind of like, all right, I want to see the next one.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, really?
WRIGHT: Yeah, I was anyway. I mean…
ACCOMANDO: Oh, I do, yeah.
WRIGHT: …but I think it ends – But, you know, at the same time, it ends in a place where you’re sort of like, okay, this is the – this is the – the end of the first part of his career, his sort of – This is the – He’s on his way up here. And from what I’m given to understand, I haven’t seen the second one yet, that’s really sort of where he’s on top instead of sort of carving his way up there.
MARKS: He’s the Coco Chanel of sociopaths.
WRIGHT: Yeah, precisely. Yeah.
MARKS: Or is that redundant?
WRIGHT: I don’t know.
MARKS: Or Nazi love.
CAVANAUGH: Even though this was – sort of had a lot of clichés in it as far as you were concerned, are you looking forward to the second part?
MARKS: Yeah, I’ll see it, sure. I mean, am I…
WRIGHT: I mean, he’ll – he’s…
MARKS: …looking forward to it?
MARKS: When it was over, it was like, gee, I can’t wait to see the sequel? No, I mean, it was like I liked it more than “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” What was the name of the sequel to that?
ACCOMANDO/WRIGHT: “The Girl Who Played With Fire.”
MARKS: Okay. It seems that both films are more interested in old school Hollywood clichés. “Girl Who Played With Fire” is just all about police procedure.
WRIGHT: Umm-hmm. Yeah.
MARKS: It’s like watching Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat,” you know? And this one is just all the prison clichés. So we didn’t have time to talk about it but if you want to see a much better gangster film, “Animal Kingdom.”
MARKS: Marlon Perkins has never been better. No. It’s an Australian version of “Goodfellas.”
WRIGHT: Well, and it’s a totally different take on the…
WRIGHT: …whole genre and it opens on Friday.
CAVANAUGH: Just a few more minutes on this film, though. What about the action sequences? They pull you in, Beth?
ACCOMANDO: Well, I – One of the scenes I really liked was when they do the prison escape because it was kind of very low key and I don’t think there was even any music going on during it but it was almost – you kind of feel like, really? That’s how they’re going to break out? That seems so simple. How are they going to put – But it actually builds a lot of tension and I thought it was very nicely handled. But I think there are also a couple of – there’s not actually like a lot of violent scenes but the – there’s a few of them and what I liked about them is they tend to be very – they tended to be very kind of close quarters and intimate kind of violence that is really disturbing. It’s not this shooting up people from across the room and you don’t see blood and nobody seems to, you know, actually suffer from anything. I mean, it was – To commit these acts of violence you realize that this guy had to be ruthless and cold-blooded, and I think it had a greater impact because of that.
WRIGHT: There’s a scene very early on when he’s a young man and he’s serving in Algeria and he’s told to shoot somebody, a prisoner. And it’s the one time where you see him hesitate in committing an act of violence, and I think the idea there is that this sort of what drove that out of him. You know, if he can do it under these circumstances, he decides he can do it anytime, anywhere without a problem.
CAVANAUGH: How does this stack up against an American gangster film? I know it pulls images from American films but where does that – where does it rank?
ACCOMANDO: And from French films, too. I mean, it – it – you know, it draws on a tradition of French gangster pictures as well.
ACCOMANDO: You know, films with Jean Gabin and, you know, Ventura and…
MARKS: “Borsalino,” yeah, there you go. Saw that on a double bill of “Five Card Stud.” That’s one of the dumbest double bills with Dean Mar – a western with – Never forget that double bill.
CAVANAUGH: I gotta ask you finally, what are your favorite gangster films?
ACCOMANDO: Oh, man, that’s hard.
MARKS: “Scarface,” the original.
ACCOMANDO: And “Public Enemy.”
CAVANAUGH: The original.
MARKS: Hands down.
ACCOMANDO: “Public Enemy,” and the “Godfather.”
WRIGHT: Yeah, you always look at the “Godfather.”
WRIGHT: I mean, one that I always want to throw out there is…
WRIGHT: …I like “Miller’s Crossing.”
ACCOMANDO: Yeah. “Goodfellas,” yeah. There’s a lot.
MARKS: “Mean Streets,” who’s that knocking by…
MARKS: Let’s get all of his in there, yeah. Yeah. Oh, the “Godfather.” You know…
ACCOMANDO: The original…
MARKS: …but the original “Scarface,” to me, is still…
ACCOMANDO: The original “Scarface” is great.
MARKS: And also the von Sternberg “Docks of New York,” which is actually coming – it’s a silent film. It’s coming out on, I think, Criterion or Eclipse set. They’re doing a silent von Sternberg series. Great mov…
CAVANAUGH: Is that one of the first gangster movies?
MARKS: Yeah, that and he also did a film called “Underworld,” which are like precursors, you know, pre-film noir, pre-World War II.
ACCOMANDO: And then there’s Asian gangster films, too, like “Election” and “Vengeance.”
MARKS: “Bullet In the Head.”
ACCOMANDO: Johnnie To – Johnnie To ones.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I tell you, here’s one that enters, I don’t know if that category, the category of gangster movies. It’s “Mesrine Killer Instinct.” It’s part one of a two-part French film. Opens on Friday, August 27th at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas.
MARKS: What’s your favorite gangster film, Maureen?
CAVANAUGH: You know, I think I have so many of them.
MARKS: “Home Alone?” No.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you.
MARKS: I’m so bad today.
CAVANAUGH: I’m getting that because of that wolfman thing I said two weeks ago.
CAVANAUGH: No, I’m thinking – I – I love “Public Enemy” but I have a soft spot for the “Roaring Twenties.” I love that movie.
MARKS: That’s a great film.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, umm-hmm, yeah.
MARKS: Ought to turn sixteen.
MARKS: Ah, that’s a great movie.