Actor Vincent Cassel has such live-wire intensity it’s impossible to imagine him in a normal human interaction without the potential of violence crackling in the air. In short, he was born to play Jacques Mesrine, a legendary outlaw and cult figure who cut a swath of reckless bloodshed across several continents for more than 20 years before being gunned down in the street by police in 1979.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct is the first installment of director Jean-Francois Richet’s two-part epic attempt to film as many of the notorious French bandit’s crimes as humanly possible. (Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One should be arriving in a week or so.) The movie has attitude to burn, kicking off with a pissy title-card disclaimer reminding us that all films are fictionalized in some way or another. Based on Mesrine’s own memoirs, the movie oozes contempt for the protagonist’s weak-willed Nazi-appeaser father and the thuggish French army brass in Algeria, who taught him how to torture and kill.
Cassel won the Cesar (the French Oscar) for his performance, and it’s easy to see why. He’s absurdly charismatic without compromising the character’s innate ugliness. Skimming over a decade or so of audacious crimes, we watch Mesrine take advantage of the police response to a bank he just robbed by knocking over another one across the street. The character is a hilarious improviser, convincingly impersonating a police officer when caught burglarizing an elderly couple’s home. Then, every once in a while, he goes home and beats the crap out of his wife.
There’s another terrific performance by Gerard Depardieu as an overweight, aging mob boss with no illusions about where this is all going to end. He’s got a sly, insinuating fatalism that’s a quiet match for Cassel’s boisterous id.
But the movie lurches in fits and starts, cramming too many years and too many outrageous escapades without a cohesive through-line. Supporting characters get lost in the shuffle of mayhem. Richet films the violence with a seductive authority that suits his leading man, but Mesrine: Killer Instinct ultimately feels more like a collection of cool anecdotes than a story.
Bigger and louder than its predecessor, part two of the César-fêted diptych on the notorious French criminal is also better. True, it’s just more of the same, but it has the next-level insanity required of good action sequels.