Mesrine: Killer Instinct, the first of director Jean-Francois Richet’s two-film epic about the notorious French bank robber Jacques Mesrine, has a freewheeling, intoxicating energy: It captures the rush of crime as a way of life for a man who did and took whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, simply because he could take it.
Mesrine often got caught and served prison time, but he also pulled off several spectacular escapes (including one from a brutal Quebec prison, depicted in the film, which took place literally under the noses of armed patrolling guards). As played by Victor Cassel in a tour-de-force performance, Mesrine was a sociopath who used his considerable intelligence in all the wrong ways, thought himself invincible and grooved on defying the laws of society. He sneered at authority, respected no one and, while he took no pleasure in killing, never hesitated to murder when the need arose.
Richet, who previously directed the energetic 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, barrels through Mesrine’s life through the 1960s, choosing episodes meant to illustrate the formation of his lawless nature: His stint with the French army, during which he witnessed the torture and execution of Algerian prisoners; his home life with his loving bourgeois parents, who were oblivious to their son’s profound loathing of their complacency; his marriage to the beautiful Spaniard Sofia (Elena Anaya), the mother of his three children, which ended when he punched her in the face and stuck a gun barrel into her mouth.
Mesrine is introduced to the underworld by his buddy Paul (Gilles Lellouche) and taught the ways of the mob by the gangster Guido (a beefy, authoritative and subtly humorous Gerard Depardieu). His crimes start small – breaking and entering, petty thievery – but escalate after his horrific murder of an Arab pimp. The killing, gruesome enough to make Martin Scorsese wince, sparks something in Mesrine that would never be quelled.
After serving time in prison for bank robbery, Mesrine attempts to lead the straight and narrow and gets a job, but he’s soon drawn back into his old ways, more arrogant and dangerous than before. He meets a kindred spirit in Jeanne (Cecile de France), who becomes Bonnie to his Clyde, and after they’re targeted by the French police and the mob, they flee to Quebec, where they once again try to assimilate into lawful society.
The attempt doesn’t hold long, though. Mesrine: Killer Instinct isn’t big on psychological insight – we never really get inside Mesrine’s head or understand what makes him tick – but the magnetic Cassel does convey how critical Mesrine’s ego was to his notorious crimes. The more infamous he became, the more brazen his actions become. This fast-paced, exciting picture doesn’t exactly glamorize Mesrine, but it does display a kind of awestruck respect for his resourcefulness and escapades. Maybe the second film, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, which covers his life through the 1970s, will delve more deeply into his psyche (the movie opens next Friday). But even though it ends on a “To Be Continued” note, Mesrine: Killer Instinct stands as a wild, bullet-riddled ride as audacious as its protagonist. Crime may not pay, but it can certainly make for fun, splashy movies.