Vincent Cassel has no trouble playing criminals. He's had supporting, antagonistic turns in Ocean's 12 and Eastern Promises, along with the role that made him a star in his native France, 1995's La Haine. But his personal favorite film from the genre is atypical.
"My favorite gangster movie is Raging Bull, " said Cassel by phone while doing press interviews for Mesrine (Part 1, subtitled Killer Instinct, opens Friday at Cinema 21; Part 2, Public Enemy No. 1, follows next week).
He was clearly influenced by Robert De Niro's method acting—or method eating. Cassel gained more than 45 pounds to portray the later life of infamous mobster Jacques Mesrine in the expansive pictures directed by Jean-François Richet. Cassel isn't interested in using his natural charm to con us into liking Mesrine. Instead, he excels by showing his depravity, especially in his misogynistic treatment of women (though he still looks great holding a pistol).
But his stellar lead performance is Mesrine's only strength.
The two-part French biopic reminded me of Ridley Scott's American Gangster, all flash and style with little to no respect for narrative progression or character growth. Everything breezes along at a clip so fast-paced it's nearly impossible to get a sense of how or why anything happens.
"It's impossible to really say what Mesrine really did or not," said Cassel. He worked with Abdel Raouf Dafri and Richet (the credited screenwriters) as they adapted initially from Mesrine's own book, Killer Instinct. "It's just a bunch of lies," Cassel says.
This is hinted at early in Public Enemy No. 1, in a scene where Mesrine explains to his lawyer that audiences want pace and action, so he sexed up his life story in the book. This sequence hints at some kind of meta-commentary. But no: As he does in the rest of the film, Richet is happy to breeze over anything interesting in favor of more gunfights, robberies and jailbreaks that seem to go on forever.
Ultimately, Jacques Mesrine doesn't appear worthy of this gargantuan cinematic treatment. The better move would've been to make one film (something Cassel fought for, but was convinced otherwise) and focus on something more specific, less sprawling. Watching Mesrine is like getting the full version of that shitty-looking Pablo Escobar movie from Season 4 of Entourage. Somebody should have trimmed the fat. R.
opens Friday at Cinema 21.
opens Sept. 3.