It is true that Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) was France's public enemy number one during the 60s and 70s. It is also true that he murdered several people, robbed banks, repeatedly escaped from prison, and basically did all the things that legendary criminals aspire to do. But to think of him as just another criminal would be an unreasonable caricature.
In this first half of the notorious gangster's life, director Jean-Francois Richet evinces the louche charm of the French criminal underworld in an effort to depict Jacques in a sympathetic light.
After a troubling time soldiering in the Algerian War, Jacques returns to Paris, where before long his sense of dissatisfaction takes charge of him and he accepts a friend's offer of 'off-the-book work', i.e. crime.
He is introduced to Guido (Gerard Depardieu), the head of a right-wing terrorist group operating in France's underworld. Guido recruits him, but warns that 'In our business, you don't win'. Depardieu plays his role with quiet brilliance. His acting is understated, yet he manages to be eerily menacing.
While on holiday Jacques, in a manner that would rival a James Bond-style seduction, beguiles then later marries his Spanish wife, Sofia (Elena Anaya). His sojourn is curtailed, however, when he goes back to Paris to murder the Arab pimp of a former lover.
That Jacques is a ruthless, relentless recidivist is never for one moment hidden. He may be a gangster, who violently casts aside his wife for his friends, but this is a man of principle, albeit criminal principle. He steals only from banks because, in his words, they have enough money to allow it; he never kills a person if they are unarmed; and he fulfills his promise to liberate his ex-prison inmates once he has successfully escaped himself. It is precisely these paradoxes which never quite allow you to feel that he is completely worthless.
He is finally jailed (on the first of several occasions) for a botched bank robbery. When he is released, he makes an attempt to 'go straight'. However, he is easily lured back and teams up with a new muse, Jeanne (Cecile De France), who displays a similar adroitness for crime. Jacques is now a celebrity, admired by the press, but demonised by the authorities.
The film's director claimed that only Cassel could have embodied this role. It is indeed the sheer magnetism of Cassel's portrayal that compels you to watch the second instalment.
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