Edinburgh International Film Festival

Mesrine: Part I Killer Instinct and Part II Public Enemy No.1 (2008)

Starring: Vincent Cassel, Cécile De France, Gérard Depardieu, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric

Directed by: Jean-Francois Richet

Rating: 1 2 3 4 5

Vincent Cassel and Gerard Depardieu in Mesrine: Killer Instinct

In the style of the notorious bank robber and kidnapper Jacques Mesrine, let's not mince words or undersell: this brace of films that tell his astonishing life story are far and away the best gangster movies since Goodfellas.

Starting in Algeria in 1959, the first film, Killer Instinct, shows our hero returning from military service ready for action of a different kind. Ballsy, quick thinking and super-confident, he's out for a quick buck, and isn't overly bothered about how he makes it.

Aligning himself with old school mobster Guido (Gerard Depardieu), he embarks on a career of robbery and kidnap so enterprising and prolific it makes the Corleones look positively lazy. A spell being tortured in a ghastly high security prison in Canada barely slows him down: instead it provides him with his first taste of fame, as public enemy number one, and instils in him a visceral hatred of authority, 'the system', that he'll use to justify his actions for the rest of his life.

Film number two builds on this, seeing him flirt with revolutionary causes, convinced that his larcenous activities are hitting the man where it hurts – in the wallet. No prison can hold him (he escapes from jail four times – apparently it wasn't that hard in the 1970s) and the police seem incapable of tracking him down, despite his constant interaction with the media as his obsession with his public profile spirals out of control. Until, that is, the final, inevitable, brutal showdown, which we've been waiting for since the start of the first movie.

Filmed in slightly grainy '70s vision, this is gangsterdom in the raw, stripped bare of the mores and hierarchy of the Mafia; gangsterdom for the sheer adrenaline rush of the heist, the shoot out, the car chase, the daring prison break – disorganised crime, if you like.

Vincent Cassel gives a career-defining performance as Jacques Mesrine

Vincent Cassel gives a career-defining performance in the title role: vicious, ruthless, quixotic, yet utterly charming (at times it's as if we were watching Goodfellas with Tommy as the central character) he's barely off screen during the four and a half hour running time, and yet never ceases to compel. However low he stoops (and he stoops really low at times), like the public his antics entranced through the newspapers, we can't help rooting for him.

Transforming himself both physically and mentally from lithe young opportunistic whippersnapper to a bloated, self-absorbed bully who's come to believe his own hype a little too much, he's up there with De Niro's Jake La Motta and Daniel Day Lewis's Daniel Plainview as a character you believe in completely and will never forget. (Although he must have been a nightmare to live with while filming.)

The real Jacques Mesrine

Both films begin with a caveat about the impossibility of capturing the complexity of a human life in a film. Yet the Mesrine movies certainly do their best to do so, through a canny use of splitscreen to show different sides to the same story and varied versions of the same scene and a visual motif of multiple reflections running throughout the movies, not to mention the constant disparity between Mesrine's media reputation as a dashing, anti-establishment Robin Hood and the callous, violent reality, the show and the substance, the bravura intention and the violent, often pointless, showy action.

This rise and fall type biopic is exactly the kind of cinematic experience I love: a gritty, no holds barred epic full of violent action, thrilling tension, fascinating characters and mad wigs and sideburns – what more could you want? Move over Tony, Mesrine is now the best of the fest for me.

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