The problem with most biopics is that they have to condense the complexities of a person’s entire life into two hours, and they rush through things in an effort to hit all the highlights. Some filmmakers have recently sought to counter this problem by expanding the scope of their biopics: Steven Soderbergh used two two-hour-plus movies to recount the life of Che Guevara, and Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, about Carlos the Jackal, runs more than five hours. French filmmaker Jean-Francois Richet has divided his portrait of notorious French criminal Jacques Mesrine into two parts, but the first installment, subtitled Killer Instinct, still suffers from plenty of your standard biopic problems. Richet even appends a disclaimer noting that no movie can capture the fullness of a person’s life, but that’s still no excuse for jumping from “Hey, my wife is pregnant!” to “I seem to have three children” over the course of just a handful of scenes.
Pacing issues aside, Killer Instinct still has a lot going for it, primarily Vincent Cassel’s performance as the main character, an arrogant thug who returns home from a military stint in Algeria and throws himself eagerly into a life of crime. Mesrine eventually became a media darling and a folk hero along the lines of John Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde, but Killer Instinct mostly focuses on his early years, ending soon after he stages a stunning prison break in Quebec. Cassel effectively conveys Mesrine’s transformation from a small-time hoodlum into an egomaniacal mastermind, all while retaining his dangerous charm. When Richet slows down and fills in the details on some of Mesrine’s more daring escapades, the movie is thrilling and stylish. It may not capture the fullness of the man’s life, but it does effectively capture his presence.