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By Crook and Off the Hook

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (2008)

Music Box Films

Part one of a bifurcated, four-hour magnum opus, “Mesrine: Killer Instinct” offers a close, nostalgic approximation of classical Hollywood gangster cinema. As a French picture about famed mid-century Robin Hood-type Jacques Mesrine (played by Vincent Cassel), the film benefits from an added dose of fond memories, as director Jean-François Richet’s New Wave predecessors so ably reshaped and deepened the early Warner Bros. aesthetic.

It is, in the best sense, a throwback, even if the presentation of Mesrine’s story also offers an unintended reminder of modern audiences’ decaying attention spans. To offer the film — made during one gargantuan nine-month shoot — in a palatable fashion, the producers have siphoned the second half into “Public Enemy #1” (out in the United States on Sept. 3), requiring a separate admission.

“Killer Instinct” introduces Mesrine as a soldier in Algeria, faced with a terrible moral choice. It traces his ascension through the crime world, assisted by hefty organized-crime boss Guido (Gérard Depardieu), his ambitious early armed robberies and his destructive knack for torpedoing relationships with his crazy behavior.

Written by Mr. Richet and Abdel Raouf Dafri based on Mesrine’s autobiography “L’instinct de mort,” the movie develops in a straightforward, chronological fashion. It’s sort of a greatest-hits compendium, touching on the major developments of Mesrine’s first decade of gangsterdom. The bank robberies, kidnappings and killings are staged as a blend of free-spirited, “Bonnie and Clyde”-style misbehavior and darker, sinister reflections of the protagonist’s unhinged, degenerative mind.

This is perhaps the most snugly fitting part yet played by the supremely gifted Mr. Cassel, so adept at projecting sheer, charismatic menace. He sustains this initial installment even when the episodic structure threatens to overtake things. The context and patience that are missing from some of this jaunt through Mesrine’s early criminal life recede in importance thanks to Mr. Cassel’s sly, subtle work. He presents a character alternately swept away by the thrill of his villainous lifestyle and unavoidably rooted in criminality, thanks to an entrenched sense of inadequacy stemming from his youth and foretelling his doom.


Opens on Aug. 27 in the United States.

Directed by Jean-François Richet; written by Abdel Raouf Dafri, based on the novel “L’Instinct de Mort” by Jacques Mesrine; director of photography, Robert Gantz; edited by Bill Pankow; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Émile Ghigo; costumes by Virginie Montel; produced by Thomas Langmann; released by Music Box Films. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Vincent Cassel (Jacques Mesrine), Ludivine Sagnier (Sylvia Jeanjacquot), Cécile de France (Jeanne Schneider), Elena Anaya (Sofia), Roy Dupuis (Jean-Paul Mercier), Gérard Depardieu (Guido), Michel Duchaussoy (Mesrine’s Father) and Myriam Boyer (Mesrine’s Mother).


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