There is a short paragraph that opens both "Mesrine" films; the exact wording escapes me, but it says something like "no film can accurately portray the complexities of a human life". This seems to be a pre-emptive defense, as if Richet anticipates criticism for a lack of depth or some glaring omissions. After all, Jacques Mesrine is apparently still a famous name in France, and his public persona lives on. If even half his supposed exploits were true, the story would still be crying out for a definitive dramatisation. As such, Richet has wisely avoided making any real ethical judgements of Mesrine's character, focusing instead on the sex, violence and publicity that he thrived upon. But it's Vincent Cassel's committed and exuberant performance that develops this meat-and-potatoes content into an unbiased character study of excess and, over all, a very fine pair of movies.
"Mesrine" may not seem to be particularly even-handed at first because of the glamour, the wisecracks, and the endless charisma, all of which are drawn from the rich stylistic tradition of the Gangster Movie, and used very skilfully in its favour. The fast pace of the story ensures we are either seduced or repulsed by the central character, and rarely anywhere in between. Sympathy or pity is irrelevant, and he is too brutal and trigger-happy to be rooted for as a regular protagonist. The first film is the slicker of the two, and the more visually satisfying due to the wonderfully stylish recreation of early 60s Paris (and elsewhere). Cassel plays Mesrine with youthful vigour here. He's all style and brash confidence, as endearing a wiseguy as any of Scorcese's characters. It's "Goodfellas", in fact, that "Killer Instinct" is most reminiscent of, with its sharp-suited mobsters (including a brilliantly grizzled Gerard Depardieu) and episodic year-hopping narrative.
By the half-way point, Mesrine is still something of an enigma. It's only in "Public Enemy No. 1" that the pace slows down and we can see, through a few intimate and contemplative scenes, what he has sacrificed to live as a superlative criminal. "I wasn't much of a son, I'm not much of a father either." he says, while in disguise visiting his own ailing father in hospital. He gradually alienates his closest friends and accomplices by trying to maintain the outlandish public profile he cultivated, rambling pseudo-revolutionary politics to journalists and threatening to kill judges and destroy all maximum security prisons. The "Goodfellas" ensemble of the first part becomes the isolated, ego-driven "Scarface" of the second as Cassel skilfully matures his character into a man resigned to the fate he knows must be coming.
The over all impression left by "Mesrine" is that it manages to land successfully between crime thriller, gangster saga and character study. This is achieved by the virtue of a standout central performance, as well as Richet's shrewd application of an American film-making style to a very French story. It ought to go down among the top crime dramas of the decade, or at the very least raise the (already decent) international profile of its impressive leading man.