"Mesrine" is a thug's life writ very large, so large that it takes two films and more than four hours of screen time to tell it. But then French gangster Jacques Mesrine was not just any thug, but a violent criminal with a gift for publicity and philosophical self-dramatization, someone who came to realize his life was playing out like a movie and relished every bit of it.
Described by a French police detective as "a gangster with marketing savvy," Mesrine became one of the most celebrated public figures of 1960s and '70s France, writing two books and giving exclusive interviews to the likes of Paris-Match. His life has been turned into a fast-moving meat-and-potatoes crime thriller, with the first part, subtitled "Killer Instinct," opening Thursday and the second part, "Public Enemy #1," coming next week.
Although "Mesrine" shares a screenwriter (Abdel Raouf Dafri) with last year's mesmerizing "A Prophet," this is much more conventional cops and robbers stuff, leavened with a bit of sex and sequences of brutal, at times sadistic, violence. What elevates it above the norm is bravura acting by Vincent Cassel in the title role.
Cassel, one of France's top actors, won a César for his work here (as did director Jean-François Richet). Cassel gained 45 pounds to play the beefier aspects of Mesrine, but this was just window dressing to a rich, commanding picture of a man who never met a primal urge he didn't rush to act on.
An actor whose roles, including his early "La Haine" and Jacques Audiard's masterful "Read My Lips," invariably display a magnetic physicality, Cassel really goes all out here, with a presence that refuses to let go. What doesn't kill him, and lots of attempts are made to do so, truly makes him stronger.
Cassel so gives himself over to Mesrine's often terrifying presence and invariably savage instincts that it is not always easy to spend time with him, not easy to maintain an interest in someone who kills so many. On the other hand, whether read as attempts to de-romanticize the character or not, these unpleasant moments finally lack the strength to withstand the film's inevitable mythologizing tendencies.
"Killer Instinct," which takes its title from one of Mesrine's books, is about the making of the man, showing the forces that molded him, starting with a stint taking part in sadistic interrogations of Algerians as a soldier in the French army in the late 1950s.
After that intense experience, you just know that Mesrine's first job working for a lace-maker is not fated to last. Especially when an old pal shows up and introduces him to the fast life and easy money that goes with the criminal lifestyle.
The friend also introduces Mesrine to Guido, a crime boss with ties to the right-wing underground OAS organization, who takes the quick-witted young man under his wing. Veteran Gérard Depardieu brings a threatening gravitas to this role, telling Mesrine that crime is a career without a future. True enough.
Busy as he is with breaking the law, the handsome gangster is never too busy for l'amour. He first has a liaison with a prostitute named Sarah (Florence Thomassin) and then, improbably but apparently accurately, falls madly in love with a conventional Spanish woman ( Elena Anaya) he meets on vacation. He marries her, has children, but the straight life is not his destiny.
More of a soul mate is another prostitute, Jeanne Schneider, who turns out to be as delighted as Mesrine by the adrenaline rush of armed robbery. Expertly played in a change of pace role by Cécile de France (who will next be seen in Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter"), Schneider accompanies Mesrine on a series of adventures across two continents that end up having him named "Public Enemy #1" in Canada. Which, conveniently enough, is the title of the second of these films, which picks up Mesrine's adventures back in France.
See you next week ….