Mesrine is a two-film French saga starring Vincent Cassel as Jacques Mesrine, one of the most infamous criminals in French history. If you’ve seen the trailer below, or just seen pretty much any gangster movie made in the last 40 or so years, then you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what these movies are like – which isn’t a slam or anything. I’m just saying that Mesrine doesn’t really re-invent the wheel when it comes to the genre.

Of the two films, the first is the more interesting and captivating, as we see how this former soldier became swept up in to a life of crime, proving amazingly adept at it. The movie lays the groundwork for what would make Mesrine such a fascinating real-life character, particularly the daring robberies he would commit,and his ability to continually escape authorities (he eventually would break out of four high-security prisons, and this movie ends with a pretty thrilling, tension-filled escape sequence). This first chapter might be a little better because it is actually based on an autobiography that Mesrine wrote, and so he feels more like a real person here – there’s a bit more psychology at play, and I think the movie is better for it.

The second film details Mesrine’s later years. At this point, Mesrine had become something of a living legend in France, and the movie sort of responds to this, slightly depicting him as more of a larger-than-life mythological figure. That’s probably somewhat appropriate for the movie, but it also means it’s a little less intimate and more detached than its predecessor. The first half of this one really drags, as it just depicts a series of robberies and escapes that quite frankly start to get tiring. Things pick up in the second half, when Mesrine starts to become obsessed with his own fame and status as “Public Enemy #1.” At this point, he decides he no longer wants to just be known of as a famous robber, and sets out to turn himself into something of a radical revolutionary. There’s a super intense scene in the film’s final act detailing Mesrine’s brutal revenge on a reporter who has written an unflattering piece on him – it’s made all the more shocking by the fact that, up until this point, the movies have more-or-less depicted Mesrine as one of those “criminals with honor” types, so to see him suddenly turn so violent and scary against a guy who really didn’t deserve it is quite shocking. It’s also probably a good example of dramatic license, as the little I’ve read about the real Mesrine suggests he was ALWAYS this sort of dangerous figure. Still, it works well for the way the movie is presenting the story.

The #1 reason to watch the Mesrine films is Vincent Cassel, who gives arguably the best work of his career in the title role. It’s such a charming, effortless performance, that perfectly captures every facet of the man that the movie presents to us. If these had been American films, Cassel would have certainly been a top contender for the Oscar for his performance here. So if you’re a fan of the guy, you owe it to yourself to check these out.

I’d also just recommend these to ANYONE who enjoys well-made gangster movies. I’m not quite ready to declare these the instant masterpieces that other critics did – for one thing, I don’t think they really NEEDED to be two movies. I would have preferred one 3 hour movie, with some heavy editing to the repetitive first half of the second film. Still, though,if you’re the kind of person who really digs stuff like Bonnie & Clyde, Scarface or Goodfellas, you’ll most likely get a kick out of these. So set aside a few free hours and enjoy.

This review was originally posted at Trevor Likes Movies on April 8th, 2011.