Mesrine loves company

Two-part bank-robber biopic endorses gangster glamour

In a typically brazen act of larceny, French stick-up man Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) impersonates a police officer and demands the right to inspect a casino’s vault. When the owner asks, “Do you have a warrant?” Mesrine whips out his gun and says, “A Warrant Beatty.”

The pun may lose something in translation, but in context, it sums up the self-image of Mesrine, who knocked over banks and busted out of prisons on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1960s and 1970s. As presented in the action-packed, double-length biopic Mesrine, the career criminal perceives himself as a celebrity outlaw less like the real Clyde Barrow than Beatty’s celebrated portrayal in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.

Director Jean-François Richet doesn’t dig deeply into the relationship between crime and fame. Mesrine compensates for thin themes with its high-adrenaline set pieces and a magnetic performance from Cassel, whom American audiences probably know best as the gentleman cat burglar in the Ocean’s Eleven sequels. Richet takes two full-length films to tell this story, devoting Mesrine: Killer Instinct to the antihero’s rise to notoriety, and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 to his increasingly difficult attempts to keep ahead of authorities.

Killer Instinct makes a thrilling, show-offy first impression. It doesn’t just begin the 1970s, but pays homage to the gritty crime dramas of Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet. In the opening scene, Mesrine and his female accomplice leave a Parisian apartment on a date with destiny, and the multiple split-screens and quick cutting heighten the sense of paranoia and menace.

Richet then flashes back to Mesrine as a young soldier in Algeria, obeying orders in the brutal French interrogation of suspected terrorists. After his military service, he shrugs off the idea of taking a middle-class job to pursue the glamour of crime. As Mesrine’s fleshy crime mentor, Gérard Depardieu zestfully plays a minor role like late-period Marlon Brando in a playful mood.

Mesrine’s very first heist establishes his M.O. of bold improvisation. When an elderly rich couple catches Mesrine in the act of robbing a mansion, he bluffs his way out claiming to be a police detective investigating the theft. Mesrine celebrates every time his thefts make the news, and his subsequent trials provide him with bigger stages for speeches and stunts, like escaping with a judge at gunpoint. The second film bears the name Public Enemy No. 1, a title Mesrine relishes like a People’s Choice Award.

The two films span a combined four hours that prove technically impressive, but narratively conventional. Killer Instinct in particular relies on crime-film clichés, like the way young Mesrine woos and weds a Spanish beauty over the course of a few scenes, then abuses her for opposing his illegal career seemingly moments later. The film’s visual and musical cues can be even more familiar. In real life, Mesrine’s American arrest took place in Arkansas in 1969, but in the film, it comes at the end of a Thelma & Louise car chase in Monument Valley. Not surprisingly, the Clash’s “London Calling” accompanies a stopover in England.

The two films’ most compelling plot thread involves Mesrine’s resistance to imprisonment. A Canadian penitentiary subjects its inmates to tortuous treatment, including gas and piercing sirens. Mesrine not only makes a risky escape, he returns in a misguided bid to break the other prisoners out. In the second film, Mathieu Amalric joins up as a fellow escape artist and fugitive who disdains Misrine’s showmanship. The docudrama’s final hour slows down as Mesrine dabbles in the leftist radicalism of the 1970s, even though he has no real ideals beyond the hunger for money and fame.

Cassel convincingly conveys Mesrine’s belief in the “glory” of his crooked lifestyle, but the film itself proves less persuasive. Like Michael Mann’s thematically similar Public Enemies, Mesrine subscribes to the idea that famous hoodlums were the matinee idols of previous decades. The concept feels out of date, however, since the best-known outlaws of the past few generations tend to be terrorists, serial killers and crazed gunmen who seldom become anyone’s heroes. Richet receives the idea of popular desperadoes without exploring it as a phenomenon.

Even when Mesrine sags over four hours, Cassel’s live-wire acting keeps the viewer spellbound. His cock-of-the-walk charisma evokes De Niro in his prime, even down to a mustache that’s part Rupert Pupkin, part Vito Corleone. As Mesrine, Cassel gives such a commanding performance that when he compares himself to Warren Beatty, he’s clearly aiming too low.