Complex and charismatic, larger-than-life French outlaw Jacques Mesrine racked up such an extensive rap sheet that it reads like a tightly wound pulp crime novel. A veteran of the Algerian War, the highly elusive master of disguise began building his notorious reputation early in life, and later thrived on his status as French Public Enemy Number 1. In short, Mesrine was the kind of criminal who seemed to crave the spotlight -- at least when it wasn't shining down from a guard tower in the prison yard -- and thanks in large part to a career-defining performance by acclaimed French actor Vincent Cassel, director Jean-François Richet's Mesrine: Killer Instinct tells Mesrine's story in a way that's sweepingly cinematic without being overly romanticized.
Jacques Mesrine's story begins in 1959, when as a young French soldier, he took part in the brutal interrogation of a young Algerian during the French-Algerian War. Later, after returning to Clichy to live with his parents, Mesrine reconnects with his old friend Paul (Gilles Lellouche), who lands him a lucrative job working for a local mob boss named Guido (Gérard Depardieu) with close ties to the SAO (Secret Army Organization). The following year, Jacques and Paul are traveling through Spain when the rising underworld heavy falls for Sofia (Elena Anaya), a radiant young woman who will eventually become Mesrine's wife and the mother of his three children. Their blissful union is short-lived, however, when, after returning to France, Mesrine seeks vengeance against a vicious pimp who mercilessly beat a kindhearted prostitute, and winds up in prison after taking part in a botched robbery. Upon his release, Mesrine lands a high-paying job with a prominent architectural firm, only to fall back under Guido's malevolent influence after learning that his employer plans to downsize, and he's likely to be first on the chopping block. In the wake of a brutal confrontation with his wife, Mesrine's marriage comes to an abrupt end, and he falls for Jeanne (Cécile De France), a mysterious brunette whose criminal appetite proves nearly as rampant as his own.
Before long the shotgun-wielding pair is robbing casinos together, though their romantic crime spree comes to a halt when Mesrine shoots a thug in a bar, and nearly dies as the result of a brazen reprisal shooting close to home. Leaving his children with his parents, Mesrine then flees to Quebec and forges a criminal alliance with Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis) a financier for the Quebec Liberation Front. Though Mesrine and Jeanne both find gainful employment as the servants of an aging billionaire, their peace is short-lived after they're fired over a minor altercation, then bungle an attempt, along with Mercier, to kidnap their wealthy employer. As a result, Mesrine and Mercer are both handed stiff prison sentences. Together, they stage a daring daytime escape, and return heavily armed in an attempt to break out the rest of the prisoners. Shortly thereafter, things begin to look especially grim when Mesrine and Mercier gun down a pair or rangers in a secluded park.
And that's only the first installment of Richet's impressively rich, yet surprisingly brisk, crime saga.
Whereas a vast number of fact-based films open with statements touting the accuracy of the events they are depicting, Richet and screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri's adaptation of Mesrine's own novel, L'Instinct de Mort, takes a refreshingly different approach by admitting that "all films are part fiction" and that "no film can replicate the complexity of a human life." By granting themselves the artistic license to capture the essence of their subject without being bound by the cold, hard facts, the filmmakers acknowledge that they're creating cinema first and foremost, yet display a level of reverence toward their controversial subject that indicates they aren't perverting the details simply for the sake of entertainment.
And if Mesrine is anything, it's cinematic. With a grimly garish and flamboyant visual style that feels particularly influenced by Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, the film pops with energy and a palpable sense of foreboding. The fact that Cassel bears little actual resemblance to the criminal he's portraying does little to prevent us from becoming seduced by Mesrine's ominous charm, and as usual he disappears into the character with uncanny ease. Given Mesrine's buoyant personality and Cassel's exceptional talents as an actor, it would have been easy for the character to come off in a glamorous light, but by placing heavy emphasis on the infamous desperado's volatility, the screenwriters make it perfectly clear that Mesrine was an extremely dangerous man with exceptionally deep flaws. Likewise, French screen legend Depardieu is particularly terrifying as bloated mob heavy Guido, and the range he brings to the character during a few quieter moments with Mesrine masterfully conveys the characters' mutual respect. Supporting performances are strong all around, particularly in the cases of Dupuis and De France, as Mesrine's key partners in crime. Mesrine and Jeanne's relationship is something of a match made in hell, but the screenplay portrays their commitment to one another in a way that feels just as genuine as Mesrine's loyalty to Mercier.
Much like Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, Mesrine: Killer Instinct succeeds at being two things at once: a satisfying origins story and a compelling depiction of the man who emerged. Movie lovers will be impressed by the assured visual style, the powerful performances, and the strength of the storytelling, while true-crime buffs will no doubt revel in the artfully lurid depictions of the events that launched Mesrine to infamy. And since this is just the first installment of a two-part saga, there's little doubt that both types of filmgoers will come flocking back to see just how the epic story winds to a close in Mesrine: Public Enemy #1.