Vincent Cassel as Jacques Mesrine in Killer Instinct

There a lot of biopics about gangsters. And for good reason – their exploits generally involve violence, daring heists, and other activities that tend to portray well onscreen. Mesrine is a good example of this.

Filmed in two parts (Killer Instinct and Public Enemy No. 1), this biopic tells the tale of the legendary career criminal Jacques Mesrine, who’s life story could stretch across six films, let alone two. Mesrine escaped from two maximum-security prisons, robbed countless banks, murdered an estimated forty people, wrote an autobiography that became a national bestseller while in prison, kidnapped a millionaire and then later, a billionaire, and earned the title of France’s Public Enemy No. 1. That’s a lot for one life, especially one lived for only forty-three years.

The opening of Mesrine: Killer Instinct shows a women leaving her apartment to walk her dog. The music is tense and there are multiple split screens showing every different look and angle of the woman. We know something’s wrong, but aren’t sure what. A man steps out from the same building, and having seen the poster for the film, we know that this is Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel). After an interminable amount of time looking around and scanning the area, Mesrine and the girl enter a car and drive off. It’s seems like everything is going to be fine, but then Mesrine lets a signaling truck to go  in front of them. It will be the biggest mistake of his life.

Mesrine isn’t afraid of anything and is quick to think on his feet. Early on in the first film, he and his accomplice are caught red-handed by the owners of the house they are robbing. Without missing a beat he informs them that they are policemen who have arrived on the scene and that their house has been robbed and before leaving, asks them to come into the police station the next morning to provide a report. After escaping prison in the second film, he walks into a police station with a thick beard and wavy hair and pretends to be a detective. He asks the commanding officer if the wanted picture on the wall behind him is Jacques Mesrine, Public Enemy No. 1. The officer nods, not realizing who he is speaking to.

The films are filled with a sense of gleeful anarchy. Mesrine pictures himself to be a revolutionary, thumbing his nose at authority and believing his robberies will inspire the people to bring out a new world order. One of his accomplices shakes his head in disbelief; they’re robbers, nothing more. How Mesrine defines himself and his crimes is the most interesting part about the films. He’s know as a “gentleman bandit” never hurting his hostages and treating them rather well, despite them being kidnapped and all. He wears his Public Enemy status as a badge of honor; he’s proud to be number one at something. Bullets don’t end up hurting Mesrine that much; but when his status as a revolutionary or “gentleman bandit” are called into question, he’s stirred up into a fervor. You can kill the man, but don’t tarnish his honor.

Killer Instinct and Public Enemy No. 1 are filled with indelible moments and should be seen simultaneously. Watching only one of them is to see a half-film, and would be disappointing. To see both together is to see one of the most entertaining and thrilling gangster biopics ever made. Do yourself a favor and check it out – if only to see a film where the bad guy is so charismatic that you can’t help but like him – even when he’s killing people and hiding behind hostages.

An older, doughy Mesrine in Public Enemy No. 1


2 Responses to Mesrine

  1. Max Respect says:

    This is one of the best “gangster” films ever made. Period. Better than Scarface, better than Heat, better than Snatch, better than Way of the Gun. Simply because it’s true. And it’s better than Goodfellas, (which was also true) because the hero stayed a hero, and didn’t rat out in the end. The only film I can think of that even comes close is another true story of another French badass, Papillon.

    I’ve only seen part 1, Killer Instinct. Part 2 comes out March 29th. I’ll be first in line to rent it. If the second part is half as good as the first, they’re both 10 out of 10!

    • Modest Movie says:

      I definitely agree. There are so many incredible scenes in both these movies – enough for three or four films I would say. The second half is great. It’s a little bit different from the first in that Mesrine is really concerned about his reputation as a revolutionary/gentleman bandit but it still offers a lot of comparable kick-ass scenes from the first. I haven’t seen Papillon yet though – that’s the one with Steve McQueen escaping from prison right?

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