Alongside frequent collaborator Mathieu Kassovitz, Vincent Cassel emerged in the mid-1990s as one of France's most arresting and exciting new actors. Macho, hard-eyed, and appearing to be in constant preparation for a fight, Cassel embodied a kind of crude masculinity that recalled the likes of Jean-Paul Belmondo and served as a potent onscreen manifestation of the ever-tightening cultural tensions at work in late 20th century France. However, it is a testament to Cassel's talent that his onscreen persona has never verged into caricature, and thanks to his charisma and versatility, he has been able to work in films ranging from grim urban dramas to light romantic comedies.
The son of celebrated actor Jean-Pierre Cassel, who made a career out of playing seductive bourgeois men, Cassel was born in Paris' Montmartre district on November 23, 1966. At the age of 17 he went to circus school and spent the next few years generally avoiding the acting scene, due in part to the fact that both his parents (his mother is a journalist) didn't want him to go into the movie business. Cassel was eventually sucked into films in 1991, when he landed a small role in Philippe de Broca's Les Clés du paradis. Two years later he enjoyed his first collaboration with Kassovitz in Metisse, an urban romantic comedy that cast Cassel as Kassovitz's older brother, a tough Jewish boxer.
Cassel again stepped in front of the camera for Kassovitz in L'Haine (1995), in which he played a rough-hewn Jewish kid roaming the mean streets of Paris in the company of two friends and a gun. The film was a surprise international success, winning a Best Director Award for Kassovitz at Cannes and a number of French Césars. For his part, Cassel received Best Actor and Most Promising Young Actor César nominations for his portrayal of a young man undone both by his own flaws and those of society, something that raised his profile considerably in his native country and abroad. The actor began popping up in such English language productions as Merchant-Ivory's Jefferson in Paris (1995) and as the leading man in a number of French films, including L'Appartement (1996), a romantic comedy in which he starred alongside Romane Bohringer, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, and Monica Bellucci. Cassel and Bellucci would continue to collaborate onscreen (in such films as Come Mi Vuoi, 1996) and off, marrying in the late 1990s.
Cassel's CV grew rapidly as the century drew to a close, with the actor dividing his time between French films and such international productions as Elizabeth (1998), in which he played the mincing Duc d'Anjou, and Jez Butterworth's Birthday Girl (2000), a romantic drama that cast Cassel and Kassovitz as the cousins of an English bank clerk's (Ben Chaplin) Russian mail-order bride (Nicole Kidman). The following year Cassel recieved what was perhaps his biggest stateside exposure to date with the American release of the highly stylized kung-fu-horror-action-costume adventure flick Brotherhood of the Wolf.