Every genre has its predictable issues, and every example of the genre is an isolated study in finding a way around those issues. Documentarians have to figure out how to make talking heads dynamic, or at least interesting. Romantic-comedy writers have to figure out how to keep two people apart in a new way for 90 minutes before bringing them together. And anyone making a biopic has to deal with the impossibility of boiling a life down into a couple of hours. Some filmmakers focus on narrow, telling segments of a subject’s life; others skim lightly across high points. But virtually all of them condense, dramatize, and stylize, turning the shapelessness of real life into a neatly dramatic rise-and-fall narrative where every moment says something significant about the subject, as though all the details of a life can be tracked as part of some specific narrative theme.
But not Mesrine: Killer Instinct, the shapeless, overstuffed first half of a two-part French-Canadian biopic collectively telling the life story of infamous French criminal Jacques Mesrine. Director Jean-François Richet and co-writer Abdel Raouf Dafri—adapting Mesrine’s autobiography, L’Instinct De Mort—take the skim-the-highlights approach to such an extreme degree that viewers might get whiplash: An early botched robbery that landed Mesrine in jail is dismissed with a single spoken line about planning a heist, followed by a shot of Mesrine walking into prison, carrying his bedding. His relationship with his parents sours radically between one scene and the next; a wedding and the birth of several children happen between shots. Years go by in a staccato blur with little sense of continuity or connection, apart from Vincent Cassel’s presence as the titular armed robber.
Still, Cassel is convincing and riveting as Mesrine, which helps balance out the film’s problematic slick shallowness and disconnects. For all its flash, Killer Instinct has little to say about the mythologizing and romanticizing that made Mesrine a figure of legend, in spite of the viciousness and indifference to suffering that marked his career of armed robbery and murder. Richet brings some of the kiss-kiss-bang-bang verve of ’60s French cinema to Killer Instinct, and his longer, more detailed segments—such as the one where Mesrine endures hellish torments in prison, and sets out to escape—are immersive and exciting. But among much of the rest of this stream of incident, there isn’t enough style or enough depth, and often the story would fall completely flat if not for Cassel’s efforts to bring across Mesrine’s showy, rakish charisma. The second half of the story is due out shortly in Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1; with any luck, the filmmakers will feel they got the backstory out of the way, and settle down to finding the significance in Mesrine’s life, and not just the grab-bag of moments that make up any life.