Vincent Cassel is just terrific as Jacques Mesrine, the charismatic & ruthless celebrity outlaw of France in the ‘60s. A delusional hood who fancied himself a revolutionary figure, he stole & fought solely for himself. But for a decade & a half, he robbed banks, kidnapped the rich, bedded beauties & escaped from the toughest prisons; he was Scarface, the Public Enemy, Dillinger, Willie Sutton & Houdini all rolled into one. Even Bonnie & Clyde in this version, but with rotating Bonnies. Part One: KILLER INSTINCT shows how service in the Algerian War started him on his violent amoral path, and how he learned the biz on his return home. Gérard Depardieu, in fine, fat form, makes a meal out of his role as mentor to the young hood, and helmer Jean-François Richet gives a jangly, emotional drive to all the gunplay, gamesmanship, bank jobs & prison atrocities. And he doesn’t swamp us with period flavor, letting the years make their mark naturally. The best parts are when Mesrine (and his ever changing cast of accomplices) bust out of Maximum Security Prisons using crude force & simple tactics. The near comic incompetence of police & prison authorities should be hard to swallow, but you tend to believe it. The rise of Part One always works better in these things than the decline of Part Two: PUBLIC ENEMY #1, especially after the film loses track of new partner Mathieu Amalric. But even as the story settles down to a nearly plotless manhunt, it’s still fun to watch Cassel’s Mesrine trying on a series of new looks & identities a la Al Pacino in SERPICO/’73, but working the wrong side of the fence.
DOUBLE-BILL: MESRINE already is a double-bill, but Wellman/Cagney’s classic THE PUBLIC ENEMY/’31 shows how to do this story in 83 minutes rather than 250! And director Richet obviously had Brian De Palma in mind, not so much from SCARFACE/’83, but in his flashy use of split screen multiple camera angles.