Jacques Mesrine was one of the most infamous French gangsters — a casually vicious thief and killer who bounced in and out of prison, and the headlines, for 20 years. (He was gunned down in 1979.) Vincent Cassel, who plays him in the two-part, four-hour French underworld epic Mesrine (part 1, Killer Instinct, opens Aug. 27, while Public Enemy No. 1 arrives Sept. 3), casts a magnetic image — he’s like Borat crossed with Bruce Springsteen. Fearless and jumpy, Mesrine is the kind of born badass who can blast his way out of trouble even when he’s in the middle of a crowded courtroom or surrounded by the cops. He’s always waving a gun or smashing a car, grabbing a hostage or shooting off his mouth.
The events may be accurate, but Mesrine is so episodic that it’s slightly maddening to watch. Wives, girlfriends, robberies, prison breaks — nothing is really developed, and so it all passes by in an undifferentiated blur. Mesrine himself comes off as a rather vague pop concoction, with nothing beneath his surface volatility. The director, Jean-Francois Richet, doesn’t dig into a killer’s psyche — he mixes a postmodern cocktail of past gangster movies, with Cassel wearing so many disguises that you start waiting to see how he’ll turn up next. That’s the movie’s only real suspense. C+