WARNING: This post contains a visual spoiler for the movie SHEITAN.
Bonjour! The focus of this week's top 13 list is French actor Vincent Cassel - one of my favorite people working in film today. While I do admire him greatly as an actor and a person, he's not someone who's films I seek out because of his strength as an actor per se, but rather because he consistently picks really good projects to work on. He's played a wide range of characters throughout his career, such as cops, thieves, gangsters, cowboys, con artists, and ballet instructors, just to name a few, and he's also done voicework on animated projects like SHREK and LASCARS. For those of you who aren't familiar with him: A) you should be, B) you probably are and don't even realize it, and C) hopefully this post will steer you in the direction on some of his films, or at least shed some light on his great career, which seems to be getting more and more interesting as each year passes.
The list below, which isn't in a strict order, is made up of my 13 favorite films of Cassel's at the moment, and it's a list that I plan to revisit at some point in the future since I haven't seen all of his movies yet. The order of the list is based on how much I enjoy and appreciate the movies themselves, with his actual performances being factored in somewhat.
#13 RENEGADE (2004) - Originally titled BLUEBERRY, this is easily one of the strangest films I've seen Cassel in. It's an artsy Western in which Cassel plays the lead character, Mike Blueberry - a marshal who attempts to get revenge on an old foe, played by Michael Madsen. Initially, I was skeptical about Cassel playing a cowboy, but since his character in the film is supposedly a Cajun fellow from Lousiana, the actor's French accent is at least explained. RENEGADE runs a little over two hours long and a majority of it can be boring if you go into it expecting a Western, which is what it's advertised as. Go into it expecting a really weird art film about spirituality, and I think you'll, at the very least, be amused. Cassel spends a good portion of the film smoking peyote and tripping balls with his Native American friend, played by Tamuera Morrison (a Samoan). I like this movie quite a bit because of how strange it gets (especially the back end, which is supposed to resemble an intense psychedelic trip), but ultimately the film sounds a lot better on paper than it ends up being. Click HERE to peep the unusual cast that was assembled for this film.
#12 MESRINE: PUBLIC ENEMY #1 (2008) - The second of a two-part French-produced gangster epic based on the life of notorious bank robber Jacques Mesrine, in which Vincent Cassel plays the titular character. This and its predecessor, KILLER INSTINCT, are important films in Cassel's career, and perhaps no other films in his impressive filmography showcase his skills as an actor more than the MESRINE films. While I adored the first of the two films immensely (which you'll read about later in this post), I was pretty let down by this one. Production-wise, it's a great film and Cassel's performance is just as strong as it was in the predecessor, but the movie itself seems a bit unnecessary and takes what seems like forever to tell its story and get its point across. With the character introduced and developed in the previous film, it allows the audience to really get to know Mesrine as a character and, in the process, watch Cassel turn in an amazing performance, whereas this one proves that, apparently, the fall from grace is a lot less interesting that the rise to notoriety as far as Mesrine is concerned. On a side note, this film re-unites Cassel with his BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF co-star, Samuel Le Bihan.
#11 READ MY LIPS (2001) - In READ MY LIPS, Cassel plays Paul, an ex-con who gets a job as an assistant of a deaf secretary who works for a construction company. He more or less befriends the deaf woman, who lives a lonely existence, and persuades her to assist him with an operation that involves stealing money from some of his former inmates. When you get a better understanding of what the deaf woman goes through on a daily basis in her personal and professional life, it comes as no surprise as to why she aligns herself with someone like Paul. The film is mostly a drama with elements of a crime film and moments of subtle humor. It's been described in some places as a Hitchcockian thriller, but I don't know about that. For what it is, the film is very good. Great performances from both leads and well-written, but certainly not the most entertaining film on this list. Cassel's performance here is toned down in comparison to most of the other characters he's portrayed, but really good nonetheless.
#10 THE CRIMSON RIVERS (2000) - A mostly by-the-numbers cop thriller that follows Cassel and Jean Reno as they hunt down a serial killer in a college town on the French Alps. The selling point here is the teaming of Reno and Cassel - two accomplished French actors who have successfully crossed over to the American mainstream. While the film is a bit basic story-wise, there's some decent atmosphere to be found here, and the setting of the French Alps provides some gorgeous visuals at least. Even though Jean Reno is top billed, Cassel has just an important a role in the film as Reno does and gets as much, if not more, screen time than he. Cassel does a serviceable job in the film and even gets to kick some ass and throw some legit roundhouse kicks to somebody's face. This is also one of the few films in which Cassel is directed by friend/collaborator Mathieu Kassovitz. A decent popcorn movie, but far from a showcase for Vincent Cassel.
#9 SHEITAN (2006) - When you watch SHEITAN, it's quite obvious that Vincent Cassel did the film as a favor. Not to discredit the movie or anything, but this is the type of movie that actors of Cassel's caliber star in early in their career and hope no one sees later down the line. Perhaps it's a testament to Cassel's willingness to take chances and, most importantly, have fun? Who knows. What I do know is that he plays one of the most memorable characters he's ever portrayed in his career: Joseph - a shepherd who lives in an isolated country area of France and dabbles in the occult; the French equivalent of an inbred redneck who rarely ventures out into "normal" society, but with a supernatural twist. SHEITAN is a fun supernatural horror movie that features arguably the most absurd and over the top performance from Cassel ever. A nice balance of laughs and scares, some acceptable gore, a whole bunch of female nudity (thanks, Roxane Mesquida!), and a generally odd atmosphere throughout. I wish Cassel would take on more projects like this.
#8 THE APARTMENT (1996) - A businessman (Cassel) based out of England lies to his wife about going on a work-related trip to Japan, when in reality he travels back to his home country of France and attempts to track down a former love who mysteriously disappeared from his life many years ago without a trace. A surprisingly good and well-written romantic thriller, which, I believe, was also the first film that Cassel and Monica Bellucci worked on together (the two eventually married and starred in a number of films together, three of which are on this list). This was a good showcase for Cassel early in his career that proved he had what it took to be a leading man. However, it's the plot and the pacing of the film that really stand out above everything else, and underneath the twists and turns are a group of mostly ordinary characters. If you've seen WICKER PARK, then you've seen this film's remake.
#7 EASTERN PROMISES (2007) - Cassel plays a Russian mobster and the heir apparent to his father's empire. While his character is important in this David Cronenberg-directed film, he plays a supporting role to Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts' characters. In the film, Cassel's character, Kirill, is flawed and seemingly not cut out for the lifestyle that he was born into, and Mortensen's grim and mysterious character slowly moves up the ranks as Cassel is apparently content with waiting his turn and indulging in some of the fringe benefits of being in the Russian mob. Again, since Cassel is a supporting character in the film, not a lot of focus is on him in the first place and his character isn't as developed as Mortensen's, for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, I really enjoy Cassel in EASTERN PROMISES and think he has amazing chemistry with Mortensen. His performance is good, even though you could still hear hints of his French when he speaks with a Russian accent. Great film, overall.
#6 DERAILED (2005) - Not exactly a smart thriller (even Stevie Wonder can see the twist coming), but one that I enjoy nonetheless. It's high on entertainment value and I dig most of the cast, notably Clive Owen in the lead role as a husband who's personal life turns to shambles when he's stalked by a criminal who threatens the welfare of his family. The aforementioned criminal is played by Cassel, who creates a despicable character in the film but remains charming in his own way. Initially, I was a little bothered by his weird accent in the film and wasn't quite sure what ethnicity he was supposed to be. He kinda sounded like Eddie Murphy in VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN when he had on the white-guy makeup and played a street thug. I was quite relieved to find out that his character was indeed French, but with an obviously broken American accent. Anyway, again, not a great film, but one that I find entertaining.
#5 OCEAN'S TWELVE (2004) - A small but important role for Cassel as he plays the elusive master thief, Francois Toulour, who challenges George Clooney and his crew to see who can pull off a seemingly impossible heist in Italy the quickest. Regardless of the frustrating amount of deus ex machinas in the third act of the film, I'm a fan of OCEAN'S TWELVE and find it to be one of the more entertaining and re-watchable films on this list, with some top-notch production value, which isn't a big surprise since it's directed and shot by Steven Soderbergh. Cassel doesn't get a lot of screen time in the film, but still probably as much screen time as he could possibly get when you consider the large ensemble cast. That being said, because of the amount of screen time he has and the type of character Cassel plays, it doesn't really justify a show-stealing performance of any sort. He does, however, get to show some of his breakdancing and Capoeira skills in one of my favorite scenes.
#4 IRREVERSIBLE (2002) - My first experience with Vincent Cassel was watching this film back when it was first released on DVD in the U.S. Although it wasn't until years later when I began to really take notice of him as a great actor; at the time, he was just some random French dude to me. Unlike his other films, Cassel got to improvise most of his dialogue here; he was given a basic outline of what to do and say, and what points to hit, and the rest was left up to him to create. IRREVERSIBLE features Cassel at his most genuine out of any of the films on this list, and you can tell that when he shares tender moments on screen with co-star and wife Monica Bellucci, the chemistry between the two is not manufactured in any way. At one point in the film, Cassel even introduces himself to someone by his real name before correcting himself, which was a goof on his part that was left in the film. As much as I love the film, the performances aren't what I remember about it. The violence in the film and the confrontational technique of filmmaking that director Gaspar Noe utilized overshadow anything else in the film, even the performances, despite how great they are.
#3 BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2001) - Samuel Le Bihan plays a taixdermist who teams up with members of a royal family to hunt down a mythical beast that has been terrorizing their surrounding villages. The genre-bending film from director Christophe Gans (SILENT HILL) is a favorite of mine, and in it Vincent Cassel plays a supporting character whose role in the overall story is ultimately an important one. Unfortunately for fans of Cassel, his limited screen time doesn't exactly give him a chance to shine, nor does he exactly steal the show in the key scenes that he appears in. It's also one of a handful of films that he and wife Monica Bellucci have starred in together, but unlike the others, they share no screen time together here. An impressive film on many levels (especially visually) and very interesting, story-wise. Had Cassel played in a bigger part in it, it would be a lot closer to the top of the list.
#2 BLACK SWAN (2010) - Cassel plays Thomas, the strict director of the production of Swan Lake that the film revolves around and causes Natalie Portman's character to go insane and grow feathers out of her back. I loved Cassel's performance in this and it's always great to see him working alongside an A-list star like Portman and in a film by one of Hollywood's top directors. A great film in many respects and a platform for Cassel to be seen by the world. His career up to this point has been a nice balance of interesting projects, and BLACK SWAN is certainly one the most important notches on his belt thus far. His role in the film didn't require him to chew up the scenery or portray his energetic, charming side, but he did at least get some of the film's best dialogue: "I got a homework assignment for you: go home and touch yourself. Live a little!"
#1 MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT (2008) - The first of the two Mesrine films, with this particular one telling the story of Jacques Mesrine's early life and how his dissatisfaction with the "straight and narrow" led to him being a career criminal and one of the most notorious bank robbers in France. Technically, I do like BLACK SWAN and a couple of other films of Cassel's much more than this, but, in my opinion, this is THE "Vincent Cassel movie" on the list. It's a quality film with a great story, high entertainment value, and Cassel showing his chops in a role that gives him so much to work with as an actor.