Jacques Mesrine (pronounced MAY-reen) was one of the most notorious criminals in France during the 1960s and 1970s. Part John Dillinger, part John Gotti, the egotistical bank robber, kidnapper and escape artist became a hero in the French tabloids and in the working class slums of cities like Paris and Marseilles despite his penchant for violence and cruelty.
Early in his career, he fashioned himself a Robin Hood, although all indications are that the only people with whom he shared his ill-gotten gains were his criminal associates and a string of beautiful mistresses.
Later, he postured as an urban revolutionary, spouting the ideology and striking a pose in support of the Red Brigade in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof gang in West Germany and the Palestinians in the Mideast.
In fact, Mesrine never robbed from the rich to give to the poor. And his politics, at best, were muddled.
But much like Billy the Kid or Al Capone in America, he captured the populist imagination of the French, becoming a larger-than-life character—a rogue and bandit admired for flaunting authority and living life on his own terms. Like those two American outlaw icons, he was a darling of the media. His life also served as the subject of this four-hour, two-part biopic from director Jean-François Richet, which, for the purposes of our series, we will consider as one film.
The French director’s work is somewhat familiar to American audiences. Richet did the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, starring Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke. He also directed several French films before taking on the subject of Jacques Mesrine.
This two-parter is loosely based on the auto-biographical novel Killer Instinct written by Mesrine during one of his many prison stays. But as reviewer Julien Allen is quick to point out, Mesrine was “a man whose recollection of the events of his life was as distorted by a need to please his readership as it was by his own colossal ego.”
Vincent Cassel stars in the title role and his performance is the best part of both episodes. Even when the plot falters, Cassel’s Mesrine remains mesmerizing. We may not always have a clear understanding of why something is happening or what has motivated him to act, but it is always fascinating to watch Cassel as the archcriminal.
The French star had a key role in Eastern Promises, playing Kirill, the dysfunctional son of a Russian mob boss in London. He also played Baron François Toulour, The Night Fox, in Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen.
Another familiar face for American audiences is Gérard Depardieu, who plays Mesrine’s mob boss and mentor Guido. Like most of the characters who get close to Mesrine, Guido is gunned down in one of the dozen or so shootouts that take place in the films. The Paris underworld of the 1960s and 1970s was, at least as depicted here, not unlike Chicago in the 1920s.
Cassel, in an interview before the American release in 2010, was asked how he thought the movies would be received in the United States.
“There are two different factors that might seduce an American audience,” he said. “It’s violent and it’s French.”
The movies won three Cesars (the French equivalent of Oscars)—including Best Director and Best Actor. But critics have complained that Mesrine is, in fact, too Americanized; that the savoir-faire and sang-froid that are the marks of earlier French gangster films like Breathless and Touchez Pas au Grisbi have been sacrificed here. Richet, those critics argue, chose action over character and plot development.
It’s a valid point.
There is, without doubt, plenty of action, and that, coupled with Cassel’s performance, makes both films worth watching.
Part One opens with some tricky camera angles and, without using any dialogue, sets up the 1979 ambush in Paris in which Mesrine was killed. But before the shooting starts, the movie goes into flashback and we’re in Algeria where a young Mesrine, a French soldier, is forced to take part in the torture and murder of suspected Algerian terrorists.
The Algerian war is an emotional and political touchstone for the French and audiences in France would clearly draw conclusions and begin to frame a mental picture of Mesrine from the events depicted there. We’re not sure an American audience would draw the same picture.
The movie bounces from place to place, not only geographically but also intellectually.
“Times change, a man doesn’t,” Mesrine tells Guido early in the evolving story. But the narrative never backs up that platitude.
There are murders, bank robberies and kidnappings—most based on actual events—as Mesrine embraces a life of crime. He goes on the lam in Canada, where he is jailed and escapes from a horrific prison. He and a fellow inmate then try to break other prisoners out in a frontal assault that seems outlandish, except that it, too, is based on fact.
A brief foray into the United States, more robberies and then back to France for Part Two and a series of escapades as Mesrine and his associates crisscross the country, robbing banks and casinos. Mesrine was known as the “man of a thousand faces” because of the many disguises he used in pulling off his heists. For one caper, he and an associate pose as police detectives from Paris in order to scope out a small police station in the south of France where they plan a casino heist.
This heist, like so many others, ends with bullets flying and bodies dropping.
There is also an interview with a reporter lifted almost verbatim from an actual transcript. Mesrine wines and dines the female journalist and offers insights into his philosophy and his motivation.
“Why are you doing this?” the reporter asks, referring to a crime spree Mesrine has launched.
“Because . . . I don’t like laws and I don’t want to be a slave of the alarm clock my whole life,” he replies.
Then borrowing a line from Willie Sutton, he smiles and very charmingly says, “I’m looking for the money in the places where they are—in banks.”
At the end of the interview, he offers the reporter a glass of champagne.
But not every relationship with the media turned out as well for either the reporter or for Mesrine.
Toward the end of his run, there is a gruesome scene after he lures another reporter from a right-wing conservative publication to a meeting. The reporter, Jacques Tillier, had written a less-than-flattering piece about the bandit. Inexplicably, Tillier thinks he is going to be granted an exclusive interview. Instead, he is taken to an abandoned quarry where he is ordered to strip and then is brutally beaten, shot and left for dead. Two scenes later, we learn that the reporter has survived, which seems to be a cinematic device.
In fact, it actually happened that way.
In its October 22, 1979 edition, People magazine detailed the assault with a story headlined “Fugitive Killer Jacques Mesrine Teaches a Grisly Lesson in Cruelty.” The article described Mesrine as “an ex-soldier turned killer and stick-up man” who “has courted the spotlight like a preening jambon.” (“Jambon” is French for ham.)
The beating and attempted murder of Tillier, People wrote, had turned public opinion against Mesrine, noting that “France’s romanticization of its Robin Hood was over.”
Two weeks later, police in Paris set up the trap that was supposed to lead to Mesrine’s arrest. Instead—and the portrayal in the movie seems to support this theory—France’s leading criminal was brutally gunned down by a team of police riflemen who fired repeatedly and without provocation as the elusive bandit sat helplessly behind the wheel of his car stopped at a traffic light.
HIT: If you’re looking for the typical French existential gangster film, this isn’t it. But it’s one hell of an action story and the fact that most of it is true makes it well worth watching. Richet also does a great job recreating the mood of 1970s France.
MISS: We like the typical French existential gangster film and, in that sense, Mesrine fails to deliver. But vive la difference.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Cassel gained 44 pounds before filming began and Richet shot the nine-month production in reverse chronological order because Cassel knew that he would lose weight during filming. Both he and Richet wanted a heavier, stodgier Mesrine at the conclusion.
BEST LINE: “No one kills me ’til I say so,” Mesrine boasts during one of several outbursts early in Part One. The line captures the arrogance and fatalism that run through both movies. Mesrine knew how his life was going to end, he just didn’t know where or when. But his enormous ego led him to believe he could determine his fate.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Mr. Cassel’s monumental performance fuses the cobralike menace of the young Robert Mitchum with the whipsaw, shape-shifting (from wiry to bulbous) volatility of classic Robert De Niro, and lightens it with a cat burglar’s grace and agility. . . . The movie is a virtual ode to a bad boy’s fatal attraction for women who should know better but can’t resist the thrill of dangerous attachment to a man who devotes the same intensity to sex that he does to robbing banks, killing policemen and escaping from prison.”—Stephen Holden, New York Times
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Extremely high.
BODY COUNT: Twenty-plus. A series of major shootouts, in which bodies dropped from various angles, made it impossible to get an accurate count.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”