Page last updated at 08:26 GMT, Thursday, 6 August 2009 09:26 UK

Gangster gone but not forgotten

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News website

The star of a two-part movie about notorious criminal Jacques Mesrine explains what it was that drew him to playing the role of France's "Public Enemy Number One".

Vincent Cassel as Jacques Mesrine
Mesrine (played by Cassel) was known as "The Man of a Hundred Faces"

Almost 30 years have passed since Jacques Mesrine died in a police ambush on the outskirts of Paris.

Actor Vincent Cassel, however, remembers just where he was when the infamous bank robber, kidnapper and self-confessed murderer breathed his last.

"My brother was coming back from school and was asked by police to lay on the floor," the 43-year-old recalls.

"He heard gunshots and came back home saying, 'I think they killed a very famous gangster'.

"I turned on the TV and saw it was Mesrine. It was really violent, full of blood - you could really see someone had been shot.

"To me it was a statement from the government. It said, 'If you cross the line, this is how you will end up.'"

Even today, controversy over whether Mesrine was given a warning or was simply executed rumbles on.

Dichotomy

And it is sure to be stoked afresh by Cassel's two-part biopic, which begins and culminates with a detailed recreation of its subject's final minutes.

Vincent Cassel in Mesrine: Killer Instinct
Mesrine was eventually gunned down by police in Paris in November 1979

Released in the UK as Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, the two films chronicle this still divisive figure's criminal exploits.

These include more than 30 bank robberies, four prison breaks and several abductions, not to mention an unconfirmed number of cold-blooded killings.

To some he was a folk hero, romanticised and idealised. To others, he was a dangerous and ruthless menace to society.

For Cassel, though, it was precisely this dichotomy that made him so fascinating to portray.

"That was exactly what I wanted," he explains. "From one scene to another, you don't know what to think of him.

"Sometimes he's sympathetic, and sometimes he's the worst jerk you could ever meet."

Complex

In the pipeline for seven years, the biopic was to have been directed by Barbet Schroeder of Single White Female fame.

But Cassel was not comfortable with how the film was developing, at one point choosing to walk away from the project.

Vincent Cassel with wife Monica Bellucci
Cassel and Monica Bellucci wed in 1999 and have a four-year-old daughter

"I think Barbet was really close to that era and was a fan of Mesrine," muses the Paris-born actor, who has one child with Monica Bellucci, his Italian actress wife.

"I tried to talk to the writer and make him a more complex character, but they didn't want to go that way."

Now, though, Cassel freely admits his departure was a bluff. "Maybe pretentiously, I didn't think a movie would be made without me.

"Finally Barbet dropped out too. That's when I called the producer and said: 'Okay, what do we do now?'"

The answer was a new director in Jean-François Richet, a different writer - and the bold decision to spread Mesrine's history across two, two-hour movies.

Together they tell a fascinating, albeit episodic story. Cassel, though, insists the two films are very different animals.

'Demons'

"The first movie is pretty linear," he tells the BBC News website. "It's a classic film noir about a guy who's trying to understand what he's made of.

"The second movie's about an adult who knows exactly where this is going - but he's going for it anyway."

Vincent Cassel in La Haine
The Paris-born Vincent Cassel shot to fame in gritty urban drama La Haine

Earlier this year both Cassel and Richet received Cesars - France's equivalent of the Oscar - for their work on the films.

The actor's award came 13 years after his first nomination, prompted by his breakthrough role in provocative urban drama La Haine.

Cassel's movies since have ranged from violent rape drama Irreversible and historical epic Elizabeth to the more light-hearted Shrek and Ocean's Twelve.

But he remains best known for the kind of brooding intensity that makes him and Mesrine a perfect match.

"People ask me why I'm so attracted to dark characters and bad boys. I think it's because they're closer to reality," he shrugs.

"We can be polite and well-educated, but none of us are really good.

"We all have to fight demons and forces that are pulling us in every direction."

Mesrine: Killer Instinct is out in the UK on 7 August. Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One is out on 28 August.



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