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Mesrine: Killer Instinct (15)

There’s life yet in the French gangster movie genre

French cinema's infatuation with the American crime movie was ratified when Jean-Paul Belmondo put his hipster spin on Humphrey Bogart in À bout de souffle. Battered American pulp and dapper French suavity combined to produce a new strain of tough guy: he might well shoot you in the kneecaps, but at least he'd look like the cat's pyjamas while he was doing it. (This phenomenon can be summed up neatly in three words: Alain Delon's macintosh.)

That hybrid of the cool and the crumpled is rather undermined in Mesrine: Killer Instinct, a punchy new film about the prolific criminal Jacques Mesrine. Hits, stick-ups, kidnappings, jailbreaks: you name it, he turned his hand to it. I was surprised to discover that one man could commit so many offences. Take that red turtleneck he wears in the opening scene. As crimes of fashion go, we're talking life without parole (though he might ask that a burgundy leather jacket and a porn-star moustache be taken into consideration). The wig and fake beard are gruesome, too, but at least there's an excuse for those: it's 1979, and Mesrine (pronounced "May-reen") is at the height of his notoriety. Honestly, he can't even nip out to rob a bank without being arrested.

The director, Jean-François Richet, and his co-writer, Abdel Raouf Dafri, start at the very end, which, contrary to what The Sound of Music has taught us, is a very good place to start - particularly if you're looking to undercut Mesrine's career highs by showing what a pretty pass his life has come to by its final act. It's a moot point whether they succeed. The picture does make clear that Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) had difficulty leaving his work at the office. He settles one argument with his wife by shoving a gun in her mouth, which to the best of my knowledge is not a conciliatory strategy recommended by Relate.

Much of the film's violence has that necessary sting. Soon after returning from the Algerian war in 1959 - the same year as Belmondo and Jean Seberg were dilly-dallying on the Champs-Élysées - Mesrine gets tight with the kingpin Guido, played by Gérard Depardieu as a disgruntled walrus in oversized shades. When they snatch and kill an Arab pimp, the brutality is compounded by the racist jokes that they trade in front of the victim moments before his execution; it's as though they were murdering him twice, literally adding insult to injury.

But the compliment of affording a criminal so much screen time is not to be underestimated, or retracted easily. Mesrine: Killer Instinct is a thrilling picture. That's the problem. As the camera zoomed and circled and whip-panned excitably during a casino heist, I craved some objectivity. Did every robbery need to be shot as though the cinematographer had pigged out on E-numbers? Richet certainly proves himself one of the snappiest action directors working today. The Scorsese-esque pacing lends the film the infatuated ring of a Bons-fellas, but Richet is his own man when it comes to suspense. Mesrine was proud of his knack for wriggling out of any institution to which he was confined (put it this way: if the TV series Prison Break had been about him, it would have been over before the first ad break). And in Richet's hands, the escape sequence at the end of the movie is a thing of beauty. If you notice a faint, appreciative sound as you're watching, that's the ghost of Henri-Georges Clouzot, purring proudly.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct ends with a title card that will cause much gnashing of teeth, even when you know what's coming. It reads: "End of Part One." Audiences will have to wait until 28 August for Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1, but it's worth it. In those final two hours, Richet serves up such delights as Mesrine strolling out of one hold-up and deciding, on a whim, to rob the bank across the street before the cops roll up. But there is in general a less rambunctious tone, which helps place the first film in context. It would be hard also to tire of Cassel, who brings more than his usual amount of swagger, as well as the anxiety it conceals. He's an actor who was in all likelihood born with a smirk on his face. He probably responded to the midwife's welcoming slap by landing a jab on her jaw in return.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads