Just by coincidence, two very flawed but interesting gangster movies came my way recently, taking entirely different approaches to their anti-heroes. Both open soon in New York and are worth the price of admission, especially if you can get a senior discount like me.
Jean-Francois Richet’s Mesrine: Killer Instinct is the first part of a biopic about Jacques Mesrine who was public enemy number one for many years in France until he was ambushed and killed by 80 cops in August, 1979. It is deliberately and forcefully anti-romantic. Played skillfully by Vincent Cassel, this is a Mesrine lacking entirely in the bogus chivalry of the Corleone family in Francis Coppola’s classic. You sit through 113 minutes of sheer brutality, mesmerized by Cassel’s ability to convey malevolence and little else.
Quite the opposite, Johnnie To’s Vengeance is a highly romanticized fantasy about Chinese triad gangsters being willing to sacrifice their own lives in a quest to take vengeance on another group of gangsters who left a French restaurateur’s daughter mortally wounded, while killing her Chinese husband and children in a raid. Johnny Halliday, a French rock-and-roll musician from the 1960s–not a very good actor, I’m afraid–plays Francis Costello, the restaurateur who has hired the three hit men he ran into at his hotel just after they finished a contract killing. Yes, friends, Hong Kong movies dote on coincidence. The main appeal of the movie is its stylized camera-work and noirish touches that To has mastered to the point of perfection.
Abdel Raouf Dafri, the son of Algerian immigrants who wrote the screenplay for Mesrine, told the Independent: “The honourable bandit is a meaningless notion.” One can understand why he might be more repelled by Mesrine than the average screenwriter since Mesrine was a veteran of the French army in Algeria, who is seen torturing FLN captives in the beginning of the film. After he returns to France at the end of the war, he joins a gang led by Guido (played brilliantly by Gerard Depardieu who has achieved late Brando proportions) who is an operative in the fascist OAS.
After a crime spree in France has made Mesrine a marked man, wanted both by cops and rival gangsters, he flees to Quebec where he takes a job as a structural ironworker high on top of buildings under construction. One day he strikes up a conversation with a fellow worker up on a girder who turns out to be an operative in the Front de libération du Québec, an urban guerrilla group. Before long they start robbing banks together.
Now all of this might suggest that there might be some interesting political dimensions to the film, given these connections to the ultraright and ultraleft. However, despite the words of the director in the press notes that Mesrine was “a true rebel” who didn’t like the laws, because “they are made for the rich”, none of this can be found in the movie. Perhaps that is because the screenwriter did not see him this way at all. The Independent quotes him:
And Mesrine as a political activist? What a joke! His revolt against the high security prisons? An imposture. [When in prison] he had the screws lighting up his cigars for him…. Let’s get real. Mesrine was a clown.”
Mostly the movie is content to unfold as a series of vignettes, none lasting more than a couple of minutes, that show Mesrine carrying out bold robberies and beating up or killing people who get in his way. Some of this is done with panache, but mostly it is repellent. One scene in particular struck me as the Algerian screenwriter’s manifest desire to portray Mesrine as a disgusting animal. After an Arab pimp has slashed the face of a prostitute that Mesrine had a relationship with, he and Guido take him for the proverbial ride. Sitting between them, the Arab listens to them tell one racist joke after another until they tie him up and shoot him. This bid for realism is commendable, but the net effect is rather like listening to Rush Limbaugh especially in light of everything we know about how Arabs have been treated in “the war on terror”.
Vengeance, the fourth film I have seen by Johnnie To, displays the usual themes and preoccupations of the veteran director. They all involve male bonding, primarily between cops and/or gangsters, and a fatalistic journey toward martyrdom as the main characters give up their lives for some code of honor. A typical To movie includes at least 3 or 4 gun battles that are as choreographed as a Balanchine ballet.
His primary influence would appear to be the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, which also featured stylized gunplay and male bonding. In order to take a Johnnie To movie seriously on its own terms, it is necessary to buy into the idea that a triad gangster would be capable of selfless behavior. In Vengeance the plot revolves around something of a gimmick. The French restaurateur, who was a cop long ago, has a bullet lodged in his head that threatens to erase his memory in Alzheimer fashion. At some point there is a question of whether he remembers that his daughter’s family has been killed, thus allowing his hired assassins to take their money and go on their way. They decide to carry on the struggle nevertheless. I had a hard time believing that a gangster would act in this fashion, but would probably prefer to see this kind of fable most days of the week than sit through another movie featuring the disgusting pig Jacques Mesrine.
The most memorable scene in Vengeance takes place in a park near the seaside late at night, when Costello and his three henchmen corner the hit men who killed his son-in-law and grandchildren. Just when they are ready to take out their guns and open fire, the killers’ wives and kids join them at the picnic table where they are sitting. Costello’s gang sits on top of a hill, waiting to be alone with their rivals. An enormous full moon can be seen in the sky above as the children throw brightly colored Frisbee-like toys in the air that hover like flying saucers as the tension mounts.
There’s nothing like this in Mesrine, a movie that does not flinch from depicting the sheer ugliness and brutality of gangster life. One imagines that it will be harder and harder to romanticize gangsters in movies, given the revulsion felt toward criminal behavior in a period dominated by what some liberal pundits call banksters.
While this is commendable, I am not sure whether this can facilitate fully realized drama based on characters that the audience can identify with. When looking through the press notes for Mesrine, I noticed that Abdel Raouf Dafri was also the screenwriter for A Prophet, a highly touted (97 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) movie about prison life and gangsters that I received countless press invitations but never got around to seeing. An early “rotten” review had convinced me that I probably would have ended up experiencing it with the same sense of dismay as Mesrine:
If you want your melodrama red in tooth and claw, Jacques Audiard’s prison movie A Prophet has been wowing critics and winning awards around the world. I’m only sorry I can’t join in the chorus of wholehearted approval.
It’s the story of Malik (Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old French thug with Arab origins, coming of age within a brutalising prison system. It’s partly a story of self-education, partly a tale of a man descending into a kind of amoral hell. Most reviews emphasise the first aspect.
Very few point out that the behaviour of the protagonist – which includes several gruesome murders – makes him extremely hard to identify with.
Just around the time that A Prophet was garnering rave reviews, I made the mistake of sitting through another movie about a man descending into a kind of amoral hell. Like Mesrine, this was a biopic about a psychopathic criminal and jailbird.
I am referring to Bronson, a movie about the British criminal Michael Gordon Peterson who named himself after the American movie star famous for his hard-boiled characters, especially in the Death Wish series about an urban vigilante.
The movie consists of one scene after another showing Bronson beating up prison guards or being beaten by them. Like Mesrine, Bronson was a master at manipulating the press in a fashion best known by leftists through the example of Abby Hoffman.
There are a number of set scenes in the movie that pit Bronson against a gang of prison guards determined to beat him into submission. In one confrontation, Bronson strips naked and covers himself with grease, the better to fend up his captor’s fists and clubs.
As is the case with Mesrine, who like Michael Gordon Peterson came from a respectable middle-class family, you don’t have a clue to what drives him to such anti-social behavior. The movies are far less interested in psychology than they are in spectacle. All in all, you are dealing with a carnival freak show reformatted as art movie.
This is what I wrote about Bronson last November:
A major disappointment. Directed by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who brought us the incomparable Pusher trilogy about the dregs of Copenhagen society, this is a character study of a British psychopath named Michael Peterson who spent 34 years in prison (he is still there), 30 of them in solitary confinement. He calls himself Charlie Bronson in homage to the American b-movie actor who practically defined what it means to be a tough buy. An attempt is made to make him interesting in a kind of Jean Genet fashion, but mostly you are left wondering why you spent $10 or so watching a violent prisoner who lives for the day when he can get naked and fight prison guards six at a time. I wasted nearly two hours trying to figure out why I was wasting my time at no expense other than my customary irritation at crappy movies.
Living in a period of diminished cultural as well as economic expectations, one would hope for but remain pessimistic about the rise of a new generation of film makers who first of all understood that if you are going to make a movie about gangsters, you have to make them three-dimensional characters. With the virtual retirement of Francis Ford Coppola and the decline of Martin Scorsese who turned out a pale imitation of “Infernal Affairs”, a Hong Kong masterpiece about triad gangsters, you really have to wonder who is up to the task. There are of course lots of biopics that would be a lot more interesting than Mesrine, even if they fail to include any gunplay. With characters like Bernie Madoff sitting on the throne once occupied by Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel, you’d think that a budding screenwriter would leap at the opportunity to dramatize a real public enemy.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct (part one) opens August 13th at the Angelika Theater.
Vengeance will be available as an IFC download from Time-Warner cable on August 4th.