Jacques Mesrine was among France’s greatest criminals of the 20th Century, the kind of man about whom two-part gangster epics are made. Born in 1936, Mesrine (played in the film by Vincent Cassel) was old enough to remember the Nazis, and young enough to have felt helpless against them. And not long after his homeland was rid of them, he was shipped off to Algeria to take part in one of the great failures of colonization, where his “hand developed a taste for guns.”
“Mesrine: Killer Instinct,” the first installment in his story, is loaded with nods, lifts and homage to vintage Scorsese, from “Mean Streets” through to “Casino.” But to the credit of writer-director Jean-François Richet, it’s done with enough respect and craftsmanship that it succeeds.
Upon returning from Algeria, Mesrine is visited by his old friend Paul (Gilles Lellouce), who picks him up in a convertible, evidence of a fruitful, if dubious profession. Disgusted by the prospect of working with his father in the lace industry, Mesrine asks Paul for a “job.” The film follows Mesrine as he skips from country to country, chasing opportunities and women or fleeing the law, or sometimes both.
As far as American audiences know, Cassel is a career criminal, having played François “The Night Fox” Toulour in the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies and Kiril in “Eastern Promises.” Both are appropriately showy performances, but here Cassel reins himself in. Mesrine has a volatile temper and taste for violence, but in a story running north of four hours, the effect would be lost if he were thrashing about the whole time. Instead, he is calm and deliberate in his manner--but when his anger does rise, it’s explosive.
Because the story spans a decade of bank robberies, women, jailbreaks, kidnappings, car chases, mob hits and the like, Richet deftly cuts corners in his storytelling, but it’s at times to the detriment of properly developing Mesrine’s character, occasionally forcing the viewer to reverse engineer his motivations. But that doesn't keep the film from being an engrossing story about a man with massive ego, appetite and rage, who brings an uncommon level of passion and determination to his life of crime.
Considering that Mesrine was a real-life criminal, the lack of extras on the home video version is both strange and disappointing. You'd think that there' be a treasure trove of newsreels and the like about such a larger-than-life figure.
Probably the best compliment that can be paid to “Mesrine: Killer Instinct” is the frustration felt at the film’s conclusion, coupled with the realization that the second half, “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1,” doesn’t come out on home video for another five weeks.
"Mesrine: Killer Instinct" is in French with English subtitles