Following the big screen depiction of the criminal life of John Dillinger in 'Public Enemies', the gangster spotlight has found a new subject. He was one of the 20th century's most notorious bank robbers and killers, a master of disguise, the most wanted man in France, the subject of a biography plus a TV series and yet few people have heard of Jacques Mesrine. The multi award-winning double feature 'Mesrine: Killer Instinct' and 'Mesrine; Public Enemy No 1' will change all that.
While Mesrine's story is relatively unknown outside of France, he has long been an infamous character within her environs. Thirty years after his death he is still a glorified hero, in Paris in particular. Given his political stand against government policy and his nickname as the French Robin Hood (ironic that Cassel voiced the part of Monsieur Hood in 'Shrek'), he has become an icon to many young Parisians, and even features in the lyrics of maverick rapper Seth Gueko, who describes himself as the 'spiritual son of Jacques Mesrine'.
Based on Mesrine's memoirs, 'L'instinct de Mort', director Jean-François Richet has gathered the cream of French acting talent for this mammoth project. Far from being a mere action-packed biopic, the double bill is also a snapshot of French post-war history, addressing the countries struggles from the Algerian War, to the anarchy of the 1960s to the right-wing vendetta's and lawless murders, including Mesrine's, in the 1970s.
The film was an enormous hit in France, both with critics and punters alike, earning it three Cesars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) including one for sound, and the music helps set the gripping opening scene of Part One. A tension-filled suspense builder, it leaves the audience under no illusion that something bad is fast approaching.
At first glance the disguised Mesrine (Cassel) and his moll, Sylvie (Sagnier), look comical with their big wigs, big flares and even bigger paranoia. However, there is nothing funny about the scene which is a flash forward to the brutal demise of the man and the cataclysmic rise of the legend that Mesrine has since become.
Richet leaves the violent, bloody scene behind and enters an equally shocking one with the young soldier Mesrine in Algeria being ordered to shoot a woman in the head. Following that period of his life as a paratrooper, allegedly in the torture squads, he returns home to his adoring father, whom he berates for being too soft with his devoted, yet more orthodox mother.
Faced with a choice of making an honest living like his middle class family or turning over a quick buck and living in the fast lane, he chooses the latter. It's in this underworld that he crosses paths with the menacing Guidot (Depardieu), his future boss and mentor. Together they embark on numerous transgressions, a number of which landed Mesrine behind bars - but few kept him there for long. He was convicted of 39 crimes and escaped from prison twice.
Women seemed to find Mesrine and his cash-ready, fast-paced lifestyle irresistible. However, we see that his wife and the mother of his three children, Sofia (Anaya), and lovers and former prostitutes Sarah (Thomassin), Jeanne (de France) and Sylvie all suffer in pursuit of his love.
Cassel deservedly picked up a César and numerous other awards for his outstanding performance as Mesrine through the various stages of his life. 'La Haine' had already put the 'Ocean's…' actor on the European map, but 'Mesrine' will launch him worldwide. In his hands the gangster is a bright, articulate, charming, good-looking womaniser, yet the film doesn't glamorise the criminal. His aggressive, ruthless side is also exposed - the side that helped him survive in the criminal world for as long as he did. As a prosecuting lawyer remarks during one of his numerous trials, it's easy to like Mesrine when he turns on the charm, however it isn't so easy when turns violent. A dangerous man, whose mood could change at a moment's notice.
The attention to detail, among other factors, raises the film above recent gangster films such as 'Public Enemy'. Richet has taken full advantage of the double feature to unveil the man behind the criminal - his likes, loves, politics and motivations. However, he does try to pack a lot into both films, which often jump from one scene to the next in episodic style.
The best way to savour Richet's César-winning cinematic experience is to watch the films as a double bill. Prepare for a four-hour gangster treat of thrilling suspense, wonderful set pieces and impressive editing devices, gelled together by an unforgettable lead performance. You may not know who he is now, but thanks to Cassel you'll be hearing a lot more about the French 'Scarface'.
'Mesrine: Killer Instinct' is in cinemas now.
'Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1' is due for release on Friday, 28 August.