What do you prefer in your typical action film: style or substance? Usually there’s no debate, flashy visuals and a plot that has been surgically removed at development stage the result of a multi-million dollar budget and the need to appease the 14-25 year old demographics.
Occasionally we’re treated with more respect, films like the Bourne trilogy finding a balance between brains and brawn that makes viewers and critics sit up and take notice again, at least until something like Quantum of Solace pops its head over the parapet and is met with a collective groan.
Thankfully style, substance, brains and a healthy dose of brawn flow through the veins of new thriller Mesrine: Killer Instinct, the first of a two-part biopic of French crime legend and one-time folk hero Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel).
Although its opening scene may be set in the 1970s, the first few minutes recall a film set a decade earlier, as a clever use of split screen evoking memories of Steve McQueen’s classic Bullitt (1968). Cassel is given a classy entrance from director Jean-François Richet, the camera lingering long on his every move.
From here we’re taken back 20 years to Mesrine’s early, short-lived career as a soldier, the young Frenchman quitting the army due to his dissatisfaction at the regime that forces him to kill for his superiors. Perversely, this is what he will soon end up doing for a living, albeit out of uniform.
Moving rapidly through the next few years, Mesrine’s morals and personal code are set up early on, his love of women and living on the edge vying for priority.
Up until this point Cassel may own every frame he’s in, but it’s not until the introduction of Gérard Depardieu as Guido that the film takes another step up in the class stakes.
Depardieu is a heavyweight in more ways than one, a big man with a big attitude who cements Mesrine’s ambitions to become a criminal extraordinaire. Mesrine is soon getting deeper into the underworld, his ego soon almost as big as his moustache.
With a life packed with incident, Jacques Mesrine was always going to be perfect movie fodder. As the film progresses there are police chases, gunfights, torture scenes and even a bit of romance. This is heady stuff, the near two hour run time barely felt.
One standout scene near the end of the film, depicting Mesrine’s attempt to break some ex-prison colleagues out of jail, can surely lay claim to being one of the finest action scenes of 2009: Richet’s tight direction, Marcus Trumpp’s pumped up soundtrack and the sight of Cassel oozing style from every pore an antidote to every CGI-infested blockbuster riddling the modern multiplex’s.
While Richet and screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri have formed a sound basis for a quality film, to make it work it needed a lead who can portray Mesrine’s multi-faceted character with ease, veering from charming womaniser to violent thug in a heartbeat.
Vincent Cassel delivers on all levels, making it difficult to remember that he’s actually the baddie of the piece rather than the hero.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct is a throwback to the thrillers of old, owing Hollywood something in its desire to attract both action and drama devotees but that’s no bad thing when the quality is this high.
Whether the film’s quality can be maintained into it’s second half, Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One is another matter. As the on-screen text announces at the end of the film, this it to be continued…
Mesrine: Killer Instinct opens in UK cinemas on 7 August 2009.