Kray twin, Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel combined, Jacques Mesrine was France’s most notorious criminal: a ruthless gangster, serial jail-breaker and master of disguise who justly earned the nickname “man of a thousand faces”.
The ideal subject, then, for a two-part biopic that charts the epic litany of hold-ups, abductions and daring escapes that preceded his eventual demise in a hail of police bullets in November 1979.
That much we know from a tense opening sequence that shows Vincent Cassel’s Jacques drive unwittingly into a Paris ambush, a public execution subsequently mirrored in ’50s scenes that show Mesrine’s young soldier commit brutal acts against terrorist suspects in colonial Algeria.
The implication is France created its future Public Enemy Number One (the subtitle of part two, reviewed next issue), though writer/director Jean-François Richet doesn’t labour this point. Rather he shows Jacques take to crime like a natural, learning the art of intimidation at the knee of suave kingpin Guido (Gérard Depardieu).
What follows is episodic enough to make Instinct resemble a TV mini-series. But each fresh incident – butchering an Arab pimp, kidnapping his employer while hiding out in Canada – serves to embellish Mesrine’s reckless character and inch him from man to myth.
The darker follow-up shows the swaggering madness and delusions of grandeur that elevation engendered. This half, however, permits us to revel in Mesrine’s brazen audacity over the course of a pacy two hours of thrilling setpieces and ink-black humour.
Lean, feral and unpredictable, Cassel invests his role with such charismatic assurance you can barely take your eyes off him. When you do, though, it’s hard to miss the ace support offered by Cécile De France as Jeanne, the Pigalle prostitute who eagerly becomes Bonnie to his trigger-happy Clyde.