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Star Vincent Cassel spoke about his character, the real life Jacques Mesrine, as being “a symbol of freedom and a terrible man.” Before screening the world premiere of his new film’s workprint cut, Cassel acknowledges Mesrine’s brutal nature yet can’t stop from saying he loves the role and the opportunity to sink his teeth into being a madman gangster. Based off the criminal’s own memoirs, written in jail before his final escape, L’instinct de mort attempts to show the rise to prominence on the streets of the former military man. Spanning from his return home after the Algerian War for Independence to his daring escape from a high security prison, director Jean-François Richet brings us the evolution of a killer. Someone who is ashamed of his father, more loyal to friends than his own wife and children, and always looking for a high risk adventure, Mesrine lives without fear or moral consequence, leaving a wake of destruction behind him.

What happens with this film is that it tries to be a gangster tale, showing gunfights and action, but at its core is only a bio-pic. There is so much jammed into the runtime that nothing is allowed to breath or given time to evolve. Instead a problem is presented and then solved quickly in order to go on to the next. Mental feelings change on a whim often as Mesrine will be happily at home in love with wife and kids and all of a sudden, when his job is lost, becomes abusive and screams he’d pick his friends over his family any day of the week. Important relationships are glossed over so easily that you sometimes are taken out of the proceedings wondering about things that the filmmaker doesn’t deem worthy of time. Then why put it in at all? If Mesrine can drop his love for family so easily, it’s not like showing it is supposed to make us feel for him. No, he is cold-blooded to the bone, there is no need to pretend he may have a heart. Also, other events aren’t given any time for discovery. When arrested for the first time, all we’re shown is him talking about how the job may be dangerous and next thing we know he’s in jail. Perhaps we don’t need anymore than this, but evenso, it just makes the film seem choppy and sloppy when it really doesn’t have to be. This feeling crops up right from the get-go as the opening credits involve Mesrine and his partner, played by Ludivine Sagnier, engaged in a job. This takes place in the future and I’m sure will be elaborated on in the second movie, but why show it? Just to let us know that he gets older, basically ruining any surprise if he is found in a life or death situation. All showing that scene does for us is say he will not be dying in this film.

These scenes stick out even more because the action sequences are so great. When guns are blaring and tensions are high, Richet definitely has a knack for shooting fluidly, keeping all the action in frame and coherent. Once Mesrine is caught for a second stint in jail and put in solitude, the film really gets good. Along with his friend Jean-Paul Mercier, played by The Rocket’s Roy Dupuis, he hatches a plan to break out of the inescapable cage. While the actual escape is a subdued tense affair, trying to beat the clock, it is their return to try and free the rest of the inmates that creates an invigorating set-piece, one that in most films would be the showcase “out in a blaze of glory” moment. Here, though, this is just the first chapter of an eventual two-part story, so the event is allowed to live freely as an instance, either that will be successful or fail without necessarily dire consequences.

Another success is the infusion of humor throughout. Cassel lends Mesrine a very bitingly sarcastic wit that works wonders against characters like Guido, played by Gérard Depardieu, with one-liners and provoking jabs. Even when being pummeled by guards at the prison, he never bites his tongue. Other moments include a dual bank robbery, back to back and across the street; a Bonnie and Clyde type hold-up; and a fantastic kidnapping where he tries to tell the hostage it’s his own fault. Cassel’s delivery is pitch-perfect and tempers his volatile outbursts nicely.

As a character, Mesrine succeeds very well, he just must partake in so much within two hours that the actual activities never get enough room to stretch their legs. The fact that a second part is still to be released scares me because if all this needed to be squeezed into the first, how compressed will the new one be? The man is an intriguing one—murderer, thief, lifelong criminal—and I wish the story he encompassed here had a bit more excitement. Again, though, that’s not to say L’instinct de mort is boring, it is not. The pacing is just too disjointed for an audience to invest in a story thread long enough to care before we are on to the next. This version is a workprint and maybe some more time spent could improve it, but the way it currently leads into the next installment begs the thought that it won’t be changing too much at all.

L’instinct de mort 6/10

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photography:
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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