With his cheekbones, scarily gaunt features, and what seems like a perpetual sneer, Vincent Cassel has a face made for gangster movies. But there’s no denying his low-key charm as well (though I think my women friends would disagree with “low-key”) — witness the twinkle in his eye when, like a shark, he encircles his female prey — and in that sense he’s wonderfully suited to play Jacques Mesrine, notorious robber of banks and jewelry stores and wanted in probably just as many countries. A smooth criminal indeed.
They say there’s no honor among thieves, though most of the American or Hong Kong gangster cinematic corpus sets out to prove the exact opposite. This French version sticks close to tradition, as it were. We get a glimpse of his ethics, or so Richert may want us to believe, in the earliest scene in Mesrine: Killer Instinct (L’instinct de mort) when, as a soldier in the French Army, he disobeys a commanding officer who has ordered him to execute the sister of the Algerian soldier they’re torturing for information. (He shoots the Algerian captive instead.) Not that this means he has a soft spot inside or anything: Mesrine is vicious and unforgiving, as are the other gangsters around him — typified here by a frighteningly bloated (and frightening, period) Gerard Depardieu — and not even his poor wife is spared his violence.
Director Jean-François Richert’s delight in portraying Mesrine’s criminal capers (and charisma) can’t be concealed; he (and the audience) is having too much fun. The bank heists (and prison breakouts) are genuinely thrilling, and the narrative moves along at a furious clip we’re more accustomed to seeing in Hollywood action films — sometimes too fast, as it skips certain periods, like his first jail time in jail, or his stints in exotic locales like the Canary Islands, Majorca, Caracas, or Arkansas.
What the movie seems to be missing, though, is what makes Mesrine the cold-blooded gangster that he is. The film (at least this first installment) isn’t interested in probing his pathology at all; Mesrine seems to emerge fully formed as a professional criminal after he leaves the army, and, except for a brief stint in an architectural firm, be drawn almost naturally to the violence. (He never hesitates to draw his gun and shoot, for instance.) We see the fruits of his ill-gotten wealth — houses, cars, jewelry and so on — but we don’t see him take much pleasure in them. What becomes clear is that it’s the excitement of the chase that motivates Mesrine the most, and Richert makes sure, with his firm handle on the sleek action, that it’s what motivates the riveted audience to keep watching as well.