How do you recover from an American project that was received with mixed reactions to say the least (that would be the Assault on Precinct 13 remake)? Easy: go back to your home country (in this case France) and devote time to your real passion project, the one that can give you bona fide director credentials. That's exactly what Jean-François Richet did with Death Instinct, the remarkable first part in a two-movie story about famous French criminal Jacques Mesrine.
Like most other biopics, the film opens with the protagonist's death, and what a spectacular demise that is: gunned down by unidentified shooters in the middle of a crowded Parisian street. The story then flashes back to the early '60s, when Jacques (Vincent Cassel) returns home after a harrowing tour of duty in Algeria. Looking for work, he learns an old friend of his earns money on the side by carrying out certain "assignments" for a heavyweight (pun not intended) criminal known as Guido (Gérard Depardieu). At first, it's all fun and games, exotic holidays and beautiful women. Then, once Jacques gets married, his wife isn't quite happy with his lifestyle. The thing ends badly, and Mesrine continues his illegal career, toughening up after Guido is brutally murdered. Thus begins his successful series of bank robberies and scams that quickly lead him to becoming the most wanted man in France and prompt his brief stay in Canada. Even there, however, he just can's stay away from trouble.
Richet is certainly no Michael Mann (an obvious reference when it comes to the robbery scenes), but he tells the story with gusto and precision, staging the tale as if it were a traditional gangster movie: taste of power, discovery of the unpleasant consequences, fight until the end to reach the top. He deals with an impressive amount of material (and this is just Part One) and handles it so that even the merely explicative bits feel tense and exciting. From start to finish, Killer Instinct moves at a reasonably quick pace, asking the viewer for commitment and endurance, and deservedly so: it's one hell of a thrilling ride.
If one has to complain, it should be noted that the psychology of certain characters is a bit sketchy (Guido is really nothing more than the average gangster type), but that flaw is generally compensated by very solid acting. The most effective (and terrifying turn) is of course the one coming from Cassel, who was everyone's first and only choice for the leading role, according to cast and crew statements. Returning to the more troubled side that has been left pretty much unexplored since La Haine, he digs into Mesrine's dark psyche and re-emerges with a complex, chilling part that makes him deserving of the his widespread reputation as one of France's best young thespians.
As for the deliberately open ending, the final captions are clever but a bit smug: after revealing the fate of characters who won't return in the follow-up, the title card says "As for Jacques Mesrine... End of the first part". As if we didn't know that already.
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