But in the films he makes back home in his native France, he can be such a bad-ass, perhaps never more so than in the title role of “Mesrine: Killer Instinct,” the first in a pair of biopics on French gangster Jacques Mesrine, who died in 1979. (The sequel, “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1,” follows in March.)
Based on Mesrine’s own autobiography, the film tracks his rise from mere party boy to full-fledged criminal, seduced by the lifestyle of money and women, as shown to him by his mentor, Guido (Gérard Depardieu, at first unrecognizable). So beholden to being bad is Mesrine that he leaves behind his wife and child to embark on a crime spree with his mistress, Jeanne Schneider (Cécile De France), becoming the Bonnie and Clyde of that half of the globe.
From there is where “Killer Instinct” finds a full-throttle course that amps up the tension, starting with an ingenious prison break from a supposedly impenetrable facility and ending with a bloody showdown in the forest. The “end of part one” title card is the only thing disappointing about it.
This is a rippingly good crime drama, packed with energy and economy; leaping from one portion of Mesrine’s life to another, it skips the minute details without making viewers feel lost. Cassel is electric, and matched every step by the guiding hand of writer/director Jean-François Richet (who previously helmed the underrated 2005 remake of “Assault on Precinct 13″).
After comparative sluggishness in establishing the path toward evil for Mesrine, “Killer Instinct” gets so good that portions reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” the benchmark of all gangster pictures. I’m not saying that Richet’s considerable effort reaches that level, but he comes close enough that even Marty must feel the tingle on the back of his neck.
“Public Enemy #1″ can’t arrive fast enough. —Rod Lott