Released in the UK as ‘Mesrine: Killer Instinct’, ‘L’Instinct de Mort’ is the awesome, gripping first half of director Jean-François Richet’s two-part epic look at the life of French gangster Jacques Mesrine, assassinated by French security forces in Paris in 1979. It has a similar subject matter to Michael Mann’s ‘Public Enemies’ – both are about highly prolific, charismatic and dangerous criminals who were legends in their own time, yet where ‘Public Enemies’ never quite convinces in explaining the contradictions of Dillinger’s life, the opposite is true here with Mesrine. Where Johnny Depp gives his character little other than charisma, Vincent Cassel is remarkable as Mesrine, effortlessly delivering a nuanced and understandable (if unsettling) character. You’re left in no doubt about the man’s dark nature, yet get drawn in by his charisma at the same time. And where Michael Mann self-indulgently sacrifices substance for style in his investigation of Dillinger, director Richet (armed with a superior script by Abdel Raouf Dafri) here gives his cast room to breathe, and gets towering performances from them all, from Cassel, through his wives Cecile De France and Elena Anaya to a performance by Gérard Depardieu which would have put Brando to shame. Richet goes for a frenetic pace for the majority of the film, only slowing down when the story moves to Canada, to which Mesrine had fled to escape the Parisian mob.
The film isn’t perfect, but it’s not far off. We see Mesrine’s character develop from his time serving in Algeria in the 50’s through to his time robbing and jail breaking in Canada, get questions put about his relationship with his parents, and by the end see him starting to believe in his own near-celebrity. Yet despite these lighter moments (and indeed when he’s tortured in Canada we’re encouraged to sympathise with him), Cassel’s portrayal never misses out the horror of the man. Where Johnny Depp never really convinces as Dillinger, Cassel is given huge room to explore what made Mesrine tick. He’s helped by director Richet’s sense of urgency behind the camera, and by Dafri’s script, which takes great care to try to explain the gangster through his relationships. It’s based on Mesrine’s own autobiography, so shouldn’t be taken too literally, but you get the sense the writer, director and star have everything in balance throughout the film. Not long until the second part and I, for one, can’t wait. 9/10