The two-part tale of French gangster-showman Jacques Mesrine is as densely packed and serially rambling as a well-trafficked Wikipedia entry. Director Jean-François Richet, who whipped up not-bad mayhem in his Assault on Precinct 13 remake, devotes so much time to tallying his subject's career milestones and highlights that any insight into the supercriminal falls by the wayside. Mesrine's jaw-dropping record of flamboyant crimes and repeat prison breaks would seem to guarantee an exciting portrait of this Gallic force of nature, but Richet proves maddeningly loath to edit his material, and his charismatic star, Vincent Cassel, does not delve deep into the character.
Named Killer Instinct in homage to one of Mesrine's books, Part One opens with Cassel and film in '70s drag and previews the gangster's deadly ambush by cops in an unmarked truck, before returning to his beginnings. Mesrine's army tour, torturing prisoners in Algeria, plants a seed of violence, and his bafflingly staid Clichy family is an affront to his masculinity. Dad secures him a legit job, but he gets laid off and doesn't protest. Soon swaggering into criminal gigs with mobster Guido (Gérard Depardieu), he flaunts his brutality to an Arab pimp and a bar punk. Cassel's rough-hewn prettiness and glimmers of gleeful sadism suit the restless young Mesrine.
After a detour for Mesrine's violent marriage to an innocent Spaniard (spacey Elena Anaya), Part One also establishes Richet's wearisome approach—his daisy chain of capers and hideouts, with no feel for which events to dwell on, suggests an impatience with basic storytelling: We miss what draws Mesrine to his female accomplice in a kidnapping, while his agonies at the hands of guards in a high-security Quebec prison are drawn out beyond even polemical purposes. No small problem, too, is that the film yields only a rudimentary feel for what it was like to live in France or Canada in the '60s and '70s if you weren't a gangster in a movie.
Part Two dives into the '70s and sees Mesrine notching up another prison escape, cycling through disguises and ratcheting up his media provocations. A couple of new actors come aboard: Mathieu Amalric, as his co-fugitive through farmhouse and roadblock, stares daggers, seemingly waiting for the movie to end; Ludivine Sagnier struts as his horny, devoted moll, including during a brief but interminable yay-we're-rich montage. He name-drops terrorist groups to get a rise out of police, journalists and colleagues as the Red Brigade saga of kidnapped Italian congressman Aldo Moro plays on TV. But, like so much else, these hints at time and place are never developed. Exactly one sequence takes off—Mesrine's kidnapping of a crotchety 82-year-old real-estate mogul, who bargains his captor down—and little energy is left by the time he gets to his notorious torture of a badmouthing journalist.
Mesrine's promised end in November 1979 arrives as history recorded it, but by that time you're hoping the next vogue in biopics is the short film. At the end of the '70s, Jean-Paul Belmondo owned the rights to Mesrine's saga, attracting a meta-proposal from Godard. When Belmondo passed on the pitch, Godard talked trash, leading his Breathless star to proclaim, "The Godard of the 1960s is dead forever." It's hard to imagine Richet's actual realization of the story arousing the same kind of passion from the aging French actor.