French gangster/showman Jacques Mesrine's jaw-dropping record of flamboyant crimes and repeat prison breaks would seem to guarantee an exciting portrait of this Gallic force of nature. However, in the first serving of his two-part profile of the criminal, director Jean-François Richet proves maddeningly loath to edit his material; and his charismatic star, Vincent Cassel, does not delve deep into the character. Part One opens with Cassel and film in '70s drag ('stache, split screens), previewing the gangster's deadly ambush by cops in an unmarked truck before returning to his beginnings. Mesrine's army tour, torturing prisoners in Algeria, plants a seed of violence, and his bafflingly staid Clichy family is an affront to his masculinity. Cassel's roughhewn prettiness and glimmers of gleeful sadism suit the restless young Mesrine—at this point, not a national phenomenon. The film presents his daisy chain of capers and hideouts with no feel for which events to dwell on. (Look! There's Gérard Depardieu, at full girth, as a fellow mobster.) We miss what draws Mesrine to his female accomplice in a kidnapping; while his agonies at the hands of guards in a high-security Quebec prison are drawn out beyond even polemical purposes. The film yields only a rudimentary sense of what it was like to live in France or Canada in the '60s and '70s. How can you get a sense of a folk hero or a media obsession without context?
Cassel captures the man, if not the context.
Opens at Harvard Exit, Fri., Aug. 27. Rated R. 113 minutes.