By and large, something terrible is happening to the gangster movie---you could see it in last summer's Public Enemies, which managed to make the story of John Dillinger remarkably boring. Real-life criminals are coming to the screen in expensive productions, only to be trapped in tedious scripts and vague, undirected poses. Aren't these guys supposed to be a lot more charming?
Mesrine, an $80 million French two-parter, takes as its subject the vainglorious bank robber of the 1960s and '70s (Cassel), who terrorized Paris's inept prison system with repeated breakouts. But this disappointing dramatization, mounted with generic blandness by Jean-Franois Richet, makes no case for the man's larger significance, nor does any emotional digging at all. Such detachment was no doubt considered artistically shrewd---it's a big mistake.
Simply skip the first part entirely: Killer Instinct bulges with a disconnected jumble of nightclub attacks and fence-clipping escapes you've seen better elsewhere. Yet a tide change happens with the superior Public Enemy No. 1, which takes the subject's raging ego as its cue. Beginning with the showboating Mesrine being booked yet again and shouting out the proper pronunciation of his name, it quickly shifts to his jaw-dropping 1973 escape during the trial itself, holding the judge at gunpoint. Everything about the second half is snappier, especially the acting: Munich's Mathieu Amalric plays an intense fellow con and luscious Ludivine Sagnier makes a ditzy disco bed partner. Even Cassel, normally a harsh presence, finds some humor bickering with a kidnapped millionaire. Still, the essence of the man himself---revolutionary or thug?---never comes into view.---Joshua Rothkopf
Watch the trailer