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Mesrine Part 1: Killer Instinct

The life and times of an infamous French gangster

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Jean-Francois Richet's award-winning docudrama, which screens in two halves, tracks the career of France's real-life bad boy Jacques Mesrine. Part 1: Killer Instinct follows Mesrine (Vincent Cassell) from his time as a young soldier in Algeria through his initiation into robbery and assorted thuggery in 1960s Paris. (There he is mentored by a porcine Gerard Depardieu.) Tangentially, there are women, a wife and family, a divorce and an escape: The charismatic Mesrine dodges French law by relocating to Montreal with a new girlfriend, where he adds kidnapping, murder and a spectacular jailbreak to his rap sheet. 

The film won several César awards (France's Oscars) in 2009, and it may be that the French, who love American gangster films, were just happy to have one of their own. My take was that I have seen this film -- and this story -- many times before, except in English. The ferrety Cassell has an actor's dream job -- portraying not just an evolving character over a lifetime, but one who also employs various fronts and disguises -- and he's good. Unfortunately, the narrative moves breathlessly forward -- lots of action and not much reflection as Mesrine does one crime, then another. The film is often choppy, but then Richet will settle in for some solidly executed thrills, such as the Quebec jail scenes. 

It's a bit tricky to call the film, as this is a two-parter and Part 1 is clearly intended to establish Mesrine, who becomes a real "star," an infamous public figure, only in Part 2. But I'm a sucker for most crime pics, and curious about what's to come. (Mesrine Part 2: Public Enemy #1 opens Fri., Oct. 22.) In French, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Oct. 15. Regent Square

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