How France’s ‘Public Enemy No. 1’ Developed His ‘Killer Instinct’

One of last year’s most highly anticipated selections on the festival circuit was the gripping gangster film “Mesrine: Killer Instinct” (as well as its part two: “Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1”). Director Jean-François Richet’s (“Assault on Precinct 13”) hit cleaned up at the box office as well as at France’s César Awards, where it won Best Director, Best Actor and Best Sound — out of a whopping 10 nominations. The enticing screenplay for the film — which makes its way to D.C. — was adapted by screenwriters Richet and Abdel Raouf Dafri from infamous French gangster Jacques Mesrine’s own autobiography, “Killer Instinct.”

The real details that build the foundation of truth behind Mesrine’s story serve to reinforce the film’s startling verisimilitude, anchored by a tour-de-force performance by Vincent Cassel (“The Crimson Rivers,” “Brotherhood of the Wolf”) as the eponymous character. The film is not so much a character study analyzing the psychology behind a criminal mastermind. Rather, it’s really a vivid portrait showing off the personal magnetism that made Mesrine a notorious figure who captured the fascination of the public.

Following a tour of duty in the brutal Algerian War, respected French soldier Mesrine returns home to take it easy and live with his bourgeois parents as a devoted son. But he soon becomes bored with the quiet, respectable life his family expects of him, leaving behind his mousy father and bossy mother (Michel Duchaussoy and Myriam Boyer). He gets sucked into the more glamorous Paris nightlife scene of the 1960s, where his immense charm readily attracts the attention of women. Slipping into a life of crime, Mesrine easily accumulates riches under the tutelage of mob boss Guido (Gérard Depardieu). After a stunning robbery, he and his stylish gun moll Jeanne Schneider (Cécile De France) run off to Canada to go into hiding. But he can’t resist the temptation of an even bigger score.

“Mesrine: Killer Instinct”

(L’instinct de mort)

(French, English, Arabic and Spanish with subtitles; 113 min.; scope)

Landmark’s E Street Cinema

4.5 out of 5 stars

Fast-Paced ‘Public Enemy’

French Director Jean-François Richet’s fast-paced crime saga kicks into even higher gear in the follow-up to “Killer Instinct,” in which he transitions into directing a full-blown action flick. In “Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1,” notorious international gangster Mesrine has been captured and returned to France to undergo a trial for his alleged crimes.

Movie star Vincent Cassel proves he has legitimate acting chops by gaining 40 pounds to transform Jacques Mesrine from a young Turk into a middle-age gangster. Cassel also puts on a number of convincing disguises to illustrate why Mesrine was dubbed “the man of a thousand faces.” His malleable appearance helped explain why the infamous criminal was so infamous — because he was often able to evade capture. And when he was taken into custody, he frequently made successful escapes, capturing a judge at gunpoint to flee the courtroom.

Finally sentenced to a maximum-security prison, Mesrine writes his best-selling memoirs, which makes him famous across the nation. Mesrine was a master at manipulating the media to gain attention, which further enraged the police who tracked him, notably Commissioner Broussard (Olivier Gourmet of “Lorna’s Silence”). In the end, the police were so embarrassed by his elusiveness that they shot and killed him on a public street rather than arresting him, though they spared his lover Sylvie Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagnier of “Swimming Pool” and “A Secret”)

Though Cassel’s mesmerizing performance owns nearly every moment of every scene, his screen presence is enhanced by quality turns from the talented supporting players. As always, Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “A Christmas Tale”) is a pleasure to watch, this time playing François Besse, Mesrine’s fellow prisoner turned partner in crime who’s concerned about the excessive risks caused by Mesrine’s incessant showboating. Gourmet compellingly depicts Broussard’s steely determination to catch his nemesis. And Sagnier brings refreshing feminine energy into Mesrine’s testosterone-filled criminal underworld.

“Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1”

(“L’Ennemi Public n°1”)

(French and English with subtitles; 133 min.; scope)

Landmark’s E Street Cinema

Opens Fri., Sept. 3

4.5 out of 5 stars

Turkish-German ‘Soul Kitchen’

“Soul Kitchen,” the latest from the young star Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin, had a well-received premiere at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. As a dramatic comedy that often veers into a full-blown farcical physical comedy, it’s quite a change of pace for the distinguished director better known on the international festival circuit for his more serious meditations (“The Edge of Heaven,” “Head-On,” “Short Sharp Shock”). Nonetheless, Akin continues to successfully explore multicultural issues in modern Germany, this time focusing on a rough-edged industrial neighborhood in his native Hamburg that is quickly gentrifying.

Lovable but fatigued Greek-German restaurateur Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos from “Head-On” and “Short Sharp Shock”) has been toiling hard to create a viable enterprise out of his grungy, downscale establishment. He suffers from working with his never-do-well brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu from “Run Lola Run,” “Das Experiment” and “The Baader Meinhof Complex”), who’s quite a handful and on parole from prison. Mercurial gourmet chef Shayn Weiss (Birol Ünel from “Head-On”) isn’t easy to manage himself, feeling too proud to be cooking nouvelle cuisine in such a lowly place with unappreciative patrons. Meanwhile, Zinos has to fend off a health inspector (Jan Fedder), a tax official (Catrin Striebeck) and an evil Aryan-stereotype property developer (Wotan Wilke Möhring) who has scheming eyes on the restaurant’s location. Finally, Zinos’s girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan), full of wanderlust, is leaving for Shanghai and wants him to come with her. Exasperated, our hero throws in his hat to follow her, but he only makes it to the airport.

Following the amusing script co-written by Akin and Bousdoukos, the talented ensemble cast does a fine job of making the main characters believable and generally likable, even with their flaws. The enveloping, vibrant mise-en-scène in “Soul Kitchen” is markedly enhanced by an invigorating musical soundtrack that enlivens even relatively banal moments. And all the chaotic situations go rapidly over-the-top in a funny enough fashion, although they don’t quite gel together completely.

Still, what really works in “Soul Kitchen” is the adroit presentation of Hamburg as a scruffy place of the moment on the edge of transformation — where the volatile mixture of old manufacturing elements, cutthroat speculators, hardworking entrepreneurs and young hipsters coalesces into a tsunami of dynamic energy.

“Soul Kitchen”

(German and Greek with subtitles; 99 min.)

Landmark’s E Street Cinema

4 out of 5 stars

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.