With all due respect to director Jean-Francois Richet, 'Mesrine' is one movie and probably a whole hour longer than it needs to be. Split into two two-plus hour installments, 'Killer Instinct' and 'Public Enemy #1,' there doesn't seem to be a detail about French criminal Jacques Mesrine's life that isn't explored in considerable detail, and yet by the end of the latter, not only have we gotten the point, we no longer have much interest in watching this sociopath destroy not only his own life but that of the people who (temporarily, at least) surround him.
A crime saga that probably would have been better-suited to a television miniseries than two generally effective but overstuffed feature-length movies, 'Mesrine' is a fascinating true-life story that suffers only from trying too hard to be completely true to life.
Vincent Cassel plays Mesrine, a former French soldier who returns from the war in Algeria to discover that his aptitude for killing translates nicely to a life of crime. Partnering up with Guido (Gerard Depardieu), an established gangster, Mesrine quickly makes a name for himself, but soon finds himself torn between his illicit activities and the attention of Sofia (Elena Anaya), a Portuguese beauty who becomes his wife. Juggling bank robberies and raising a family soon becomes an ongoing battle in his life, but after getting sent to prison, he tries to retire from crime and follow in his father's footsteps, working at a textile company.
Before long, however, Mesrine discovers that a daily grind is nowhere near as rewarding – not to mention exciting – as his attention-grabbing antics with guns and getaway cars. Unfortunately, this not only leads to more robberies, but more prison stints, but Mesrine, unwilling to be caged, stages a daring breakout. Setting out on the lam, Mesrine concocts a series of ambitious but half-cocked schemes involving impersonations, kidnapping, elaborate heists, prison assaults (from outside prison), and more, putting himself in the crosshairs of the authorities, who anoint him "Public Enemy #1" as they exasperatedly exhaust every effort they can think of in order to stop his decades-long crime spree.
Because of the cumulative length of the 'Mesrine' saga, this plot description barely scratches the surface of the myriad ways in which the title character breaks the law and basically offends human decency. But it also captures the vast majority of what audiences will take away from the film; notwithstanding some impressive heists, and some genuinely shocking prison breaks (which by all accounts are mostly authentic), the film falls into a repetitive cycle of violence, celebration, imminent danger, and fugitive humility, all of which are cemented together by Mesrine's predictable, sociopathic behavior. Quite frankly, no matter how interesting were each one of Mesrine's criminal acts, escapes from authorities or reinventions, at a certain point they all blend into one another, and become decidedly less interesting once the character appears to have come to terms with the fact that he's pretty much nuts.
In this sense, the story of 'Mesrine' might have better been served as a television miniseries; although it's been compared to 'Scarface' or 'Goodfellas,' the story more closely resembles 'The Sopranos' in its ongoing depiction of one man's criminal lifestyle, and the contradictions between public preconceptions and the more complex realities of his life. Certainly it seems like the prison breaks or heists would be riveting installments in individual episodes of a larger character study-cum-crime saga. But by the time Mesrine descends into a second period of self-aggrandizing decadence in 'Public Enemy #1,' and one which everyone but him seems to realize is virtually suicidal, the audience not only knows where the story is heading (with or without knowing the course of actual events), but they no longer have a reason to sympathize with him – or quite frankly be interested in whatever happens to be his next "latest" scheme.
That said, I found 'Killer Instict' fairly riveting, perhaps because it shows his more formative days as an aspiring crook and battling the impulse to settle into a life of normalcy. And throughout both films, Cassel is startling and effective as the title character, showing the charm and personality that helped Mesrine capture the public's attention even better than his criminal antics, as well as the ruthlessness and self-destructive self-importance that made him dangerous and menacing. (If you haven't lost all sympathy for him by the end of 'Killer Instinct,' the murder of a reporter in 'Public Enemy #1' – solely because he said unflattering things about Mesrine - should eliminate any and all compassion you might previously showed him.)
Additionally, Richet depicts Mesrine's life with the same sort of contradictory flair that he lived it, offering an effective, decadent style that distracts the audience and makes them forget about the character's often unflinching brutality; in that sense it's a brilliant accomplishment, rendering as much of a full and honest portrait of Mesrine's life as would seem possible. But cinematically, there's simply a redundancy to four hours of storytelling in which a character, even one based on a real person, essentially does the same thing over and over again. Not to mention, the film is yet another true-crime saga whose novelty is based largely on the fact that the criminal succeeded for as long as he did, and did so in the comparatively unfamiliar context of France.
In which case, 'Mesrine' is effectively told, well-directed, and extremely well-acted, but perhaps not unlike the life of the man upon whom it's based, it feels like a bit of overkill. As such, it's worth checking out, but maybe wait to watch it on home video, where you can explore it at your leisure. Because even if Mesrine's eventual inhumanity doesn't wear you out, the volume of detail about his life leading up to it just might, but checking out his exploits as a series of digestible, episode-length installments just might be the best way to make such a bad guy more bearable.