Directed by Jean-François Richet, Mesrine tells the true story of, the real-life French gangster, Jacques Mesrine (probably the most notorious gangster in France’s history, and definitely the most prolific criminal of the 60’s and 70’s, played by Vincent Cassel), chronicling his entire criminal career from its inception, right up until its famous conclusion in August 1979.
The story is split over two parts (each being around the two hour mark), with the first (titled ‘Killer Instinct’) being based mainly on Mesrine’s own autobiography (which had the same title) and ending in the late 60’s after he had become a fully fledged gangster and national icon after robbing multiple banks in several continents, kidnapping millionaires, and not only being arrested several times, but escaping custody and even breaking out of a maximum security prison.
The first half also presents his first wife, as well as countless other romantic relations which led to multiple children and many break-ups, as well as several criminal partners and failed attempts at going straight, and attempting to explore the reasons (albeit rather briefly) as to why he became a criminal and how he moved up in scales of violence and notoriety throughout his career.
The second half (titled ‘Public Enemy Number One’) also covers several of Mesrine’s relations, arrests, kidnappings, bank robberies and escapes, but is based on the period of Jacques’ life after he wrote his autobiography, and chooses to further explore Mesrine’s complex and deteriorating psyche, as with each scene in the second half it becomes clearer that he was going slightly mad; having delusions of grandeur, classifying himself as a hero of the people and being unjustly brash and cocky with the law, even allying himself with groups such as The Baader-Meinhof Gang (a violent, anti-imperialist, guerrilla group) and convincing himself that his robbing banks was a way of ‘fighting’ to bring down the corrupt governmental system, all of which were wrong.
Richet actually designed the movies to be viewed as a single four hour epic (which it can be, as both parts come bundled on the same disc, and priced no different to a standard Blu-ray movie), as they are separated only by the credit roll (and were only split for easier marketability), and it is in viewing Meserine in this way that the best overall effect is achieved.
Acting in the film is brilliant, as Vincent Cassel literally becomes Jacques Mesrine; oozing with every iota of charismatic magnetism that drew the scores of women to his bed, and effortlessly flipping the coin instantly to completely reveal a vicious streak, that sees him beat defenceless men to a pulp and even place a gun in the mouth of his pregnant wife, which ensures that he remains a terrifying character throughout. Cassel’s performance is, in a word, perfect, and most likely the performance of his career, as his transformation into France’s most famous gangster is seamless and the portrayal is so natural that it may as well have been the real Jacques Mesrine up on the screen.
Supporting actors also fare well, as all parts are played with a more than acceptable level of quality; from Cécile De France’s skilful portrayal of Jeanne Schneider (one of Mesrine’s more brutal and emotionally confused lovers) to Mathieu Amalric’s prime showing as François Besse (one of Mesrine’s many criminal partners, who was somewhat less fond of the limelight than his prolific partner) and Olivier Gourmet as Commissaire Broussard (The man eventually charged with the job of reigning in, the proverbial thorn in the side of the French government, Jacques Mesrine).
Although the best, and most memorable, performance from a supporting cast member has to be the portrayal of crime boss Guido, a character which is played to perfection by Gérard Depardieu. Guidco is a far cry from Depardieu’s most famous roles (Georges from Green Card for example), as he is essentially the Tony Soprano of the 1960’s French suburbs, and a character that was given a hefty presence by Depardieu’s strong and powerful performance, in a role that he fit into surprisingly well, being slow to trust, hardnosed, and very realistic and good at his job. Depardieu’s best performance in years, and one that could even rival James Gandolfini’s as a similarly toned crime lord.
Mesrine’s life is easily (and often) compared with that of 1930’s bank robber John Dillinger, and likewise Richet’s movie will also be compared to Michael Mann’s historical Dillinger biography Public Enemies, and is, in short, miles ahead of Public Enemies in terms of quality and storytelling as it is much more engaging tense and all round thrilling. It’s also ahead in terms of style, and oddly enough Richet’s stylistic choices actually resembles Mann’s earlier work on ‘Heat’ and works very well for the subject matter of the film; as while it is mostly conventional it remains elegant, exciting and edgy; being different enough to distance itself from most motion pictures and make people realize that this isn’t the story of any ordinary man.
Mesrine does have a few problems, and the second half is undoubtedly weaker than the first, with a slightly weaker supporting cast, and although it does contain some of the most tense moments of the pair and is concerned with Mesrine’s more Scarface-like criminal peak, it is never quite as gripping or as worthy of awe as the first, not to say that it isn’t still a shining example of brilliant filmmaking.
The storytelling is also somewhat erratic and extremely fast paced as there is an awful lot of information to cover, not always allowing for full enough character development, but Richet has done a very commendable job in placing 20 years worth of extraordinary criminal activities, in the life of France’s most notorious gangster, into a mere four hours of film, and it never seems disjointed or inaccurate.
In fact Richet has done a wonderful job, and managed to create a true gangster masterpiece that refuses to judge or to glorify the man who topped the public enemy list on more than one continent, and simply presents an account of who he really was; a charismatic yet brutal and delusional killer that craved the limelight; and this is a film that Mesrine himself would probably enjoy, as it serves to fuel the legend that he himself created over 30 years ago, one that shouldn’t be missed, and could easily contend with films made by the likes of Coppola and Scorsese.
Mesrine comes to the small screen via a 1080p transfer that is of fairly standard quality for a Blu-ray release; there are relatively few print errors or flaws evident when watching, and black levels are deep, but not the best they could be as some detail is clearly lost in the shadows.
Elsewhere detail levels are fairly good and clarity never really becomes an issue, although it’s obvious that noise reduction has been employed on the transfer and several shots do contain a heavy dose of grain, all making for a level of sharpness that is slightly inconsistent, but never verges into bad, and is at worst, pretty good.
Skin tones are extremely natural looking, and the colour palette used does change part way through, being noticeably warmer and more stylish in the first part (particularly during the club scenes), and somewhat subdued and softer in the second, however all serve the individual part of the film very well, and while overall the film does look fairly soft it shouldn’t disappoint too heavily.
A picture that was never intended to look pristine, Mesrine’s quality is likely to infuriate some viewers that wanted to see a double disc edition released, but is much better than any DVD could hope to offer, and is for the most part, despite the grain and noise reduction, pretty decent.
Unlike the picture, Mesrine’s 5.1 DTS HD MA soundtrack shouldn’t disappoint a soul as dialogue is excellently placed and levelled and always crisply clear, even during the many hectic action sequences.
The actions sequences also boast their fair share of excellent quality sound, as placement and transitions are superb, with bullets whizzing from this speaker to that in a seamless manner adding a great deal of depth to those scenes. Rear speakers are also used extensively during the action scenes, and provide some ambience in the softer scenes.
Bass is strong and deep, and used in a number of different ways that can be both powerful and shocking, and also provide some top quality softer rumbles when necessary.
Overall a great soundtrack that does the main movie a real service; perfectly representing the actors dialogue, and excellently enhancing the many action scenes, which come thick and fast, and often bundled with enough gunfire to fight an entire war.
The Mesrine Blu-ray also comes with an extensive amount of extras that should easily appease the films real fans, including a making of feature for each part, deleted scenes, a feature about scoring the music to the film, trailer, a feature about the actors and their characters, and an interview with director Jean-François Richet.
Unfortunately all of the bonus features are presented in standard definition and just like the main movie has only French audio and English subtitles, an issue that will probably put most people off watching the features, which is a shame as they have all been made with great attention to detail and are rather extensive in covering all aspects of making the film and exploring the real life counterparts to the on screen characters.
It is true, that being in French only, the features aren’t the easiest to watch, but they do contain a wealth of interesting information, with the making of’s, scoring feature, and director’s interview being of particular note, and all worthy of a viewing. An interesting collection that will only suit real fans of the movie, French gangster history buffs, or viewers that are fluent in French.
The Bottom Line:
Mesrine is simply a brilliant gangster film; it has already been compared to classics like Scarface and Goodfellas, and is easily better than Michael Mann’s blockbuster Public Enemies; it’s about a gangster that’s even more famous in France than the Kray twins were in London, as charismatic as Mickey Knox from Natural Born Killers, as brutal and rash as Nicky Santoro in Casino, and as cocky enough to walk into a police station (pretending to be a detective) and ask the desk clerk about the level of patrols and if he think Jacques Mesrine is likely to be in the area.
Even if the picture quality isn’t perfect, it’s far from bad, and stylistically the film looks fantastic. Sound quality is brilliant and although the extras are all in French (which should be expected from a French movie) they are worthy inclusions and filled with relevant and interesting information.
In its entirety Mesrine is cinematic gold; it’s truly gripping, has some of the best action scenes of the past year, and builds tension superbly when needed. There are also a couple of doses of dark comedy, which is always welcome in a film that has scenes as shocking as some of the ones included here (the indignities of the Canadian prison’s solitary confinement programme for one), and although part two is slightly weaker than the first it is a fitting end, containing some wonderfully tense scenes, and is extremely good in its own right.
Foreign films often put viewers off before they give the film a chance, but once they start watching Mesrine they won’t regret it, as it is never hard to read the subtitles (they’re very clear and there’s plenty of time to get through them), and the film is that engaging (the four hour runtime feels like two at most) that after a short while you won’t even notice your reading the entire film.
All the stars perform excellently and Vicent Cassel’s portrayal of the notorious Jacques is simply astonishing. Gangster fans and thriller enthusiasts will love every minute of this difficult to fault epic; Mesrine really is a masterpiece of French cinema and should be watched by any film fan, regardless of nationality.