The two-part tale of French gangster-showman Jacques Mesrine is as densely packed and serially rambling as a well-trafficked Wikipedia entry. Director Jean-François Richet, who whipped up not-bad mayhem in his Assault on Precinct 13 remake, devotes so much time to tallying his subject’s career milestones and highlights—all of them, it seems—that any insight into the supercriminal falls by the wayside. Mesrine’s jaw-dropping record of flamboyant crimes and repeat prison breaks would seem to guarantee an exciting portrait of this Gallic force of nature, but Richet proves maddeningly loath to edit his material, and his charismatic star, Vincent Cassel, does not delve deep into the character.
Named “Killer Instinct” in homage to one of Mesrine’s books, Part One opens with Cassel and film in ’70s drag (‘stache, split screens) and previews the gangster’s deadly ambush by cops in an unmarked truck, before returning to his beginnings. Mesrine’s army tour, torturing prisoners in Algeria, plants a seed of violence, and his bafflingly staid Clichy family is an affront to his masculinity. Dad secures him a legit job, but he gets laid off and doesn’t protest. Soon swaggering into criminal gigs with mobster Guido (Gérard Depardieu, at full girth), he flaunts his brutality to an Arab pimp and a bar punk. Cassel’s rough-hewn prettiness and glimmers of gleeful sadism suit the restless young Mesrine—at this point, not a national phenomenon.
After a detour for Mesrine’s violent marriage to an innocent Spaniard (spacey Elena Anaya), Part One also establishes Richet’s wearisome approach—his daisy chain of capers and hideouts, with no feel for which events to dwell on, suggests an impatience with basic storytelling: We miss what draws Mesrine to his female accomplice in a kidnapping, while his agonies at the hands of guards in a high-security Quebec prison are drawn out beyond even polemical purposes. No small problem, too, is that the film yields only a rudimentary sense of what it was like to live in France or Canada in the ’60s and ’70s if you weren’t a gangster in a movie. How can you get a sense of a folk hero or media obsession without context?
Part Two dives into the ’70s and sees Mesrine notching up another prison escape, cycling through disguises, and ratcheting up his media provocations. A couple of new actors come aboard: Mathieu Amalric, as his co-fugitive through farmhouse and roadblock, stares daggers, seemingly waiting for the movie to end; Ludivine Sagnier struts as Mesrine’s horny, devoted moll, including during a brief but interminable yay-we’re-rich montage. He name-drops terrorist groups to get a rise out of police, journalists, and colleagues as the Red Brigade saga of kidnapped Italian congressman Aldo Moro plays on TV. But, like so much else, these hints at time and place are never developed. Exactly one sequence takes off—Mesrine’s kidnapping of a crotchety 82-year-old real estate mogul, who bargains his captor down—and little energy is left by the time he gets to his notorious torture of a badmouthing journalist. No help from the soundtrack in providing distraction: Pitifully, for a gangster who’s like Scarface for some French hip-hop, the tunes get as adventurous as Édith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” and, for a London trip, “London Calling.”
Mesrine’s promised end in November 1979 arrives as history recorded it, but, by that time, you’re hoping the next vogue in biopics is the short film. At the end of the ’70s, Jean-Paul Belmondo owned the rights to Mesrine’s saga, attracting a meta-proposal from Godard. When Belmondo passed on the pitch, Godard talked trash, leading his Breathless star to proclaim, “The Godard of the 1960s is dead forever.” It’s hard to imagine Richet’s actual realization of the story arousing the same kind of passion from the aging French actor; its buffet-style telling is about as epic as Cassel’s dutifully acquired second-half potbelly and no more profound.