Step aside, all you onscreen psychopaths. Jacques Mesrine is in town.

Swaggering through cinema’s bank vaults with sawed off shotgun in hand and an ego the size of Florida, this French loose cannon is wilier than Tony Montana, and a better shot than Don Corleone. Invite him to a sit-down café breakfast with the Reservoir Dogs, and watch Misters White, Brown, and Blonde ooze dark crimson red.

Mesrine was the real deal – an impulsive gangster whose ballsy bank robberies, kidnappings and murders left a bloody stain across Algeria, France, Canada and America. His chaos was prolific, blooming during military service in the brutal, mid-fifties Algerian War. In 1979, a hail of seventeen close-range police bullets ended Mesrine’s reckless mayhem.

But his legend lives on, and filmmaker Jean-Francois Richet blasts it into our faces with both barrels. Rightfully convinced that he couldn’t contain the charismatic killer’s epic story in one serving, the director churned out two back-to-back films over 33 weeks. “Killer Instinct,” a tight, gorgeously shot retelling of Mesrine’s uprising, and “Public Enemy No. 1,” its grittier, more free form sequel, boast brilliant, blistering performances by Vincent Cassel. The first film is due out later this month, with “Public Enemy…” slated for a September release date.

There’s canned, call-it-in acting, and then there’s possession. There’s yawn-and-get-your-paycheck performance, and there’s obsessive, wear-the-flesh perfectionism. There’s indifferent hackwork, and there’s… Cassel. In “Killer Instinct,” he’s freshly ironed and dapper. His mischievous grin invites fun, but more often leads to misery. His perfect hair, impeccably trimmed moustache, and confident strut suggest that this narcissistic bastard has a serious crush on himself.       

With “Public Enemy No. 1,” however, a strange shift takes place. Gone are the good looks and quick-to-react adaptability, replaced with potbelly and paranoia. Over the years, it would seem, Mesrine has not aged well. Adding to the wear and tear of years, this “Man of a Thousand Faces” often concealed his identity through creative disguises. However, Richet’s films never lose sight of their main maniac, despite all his phony facial hair and elusive behavior.

Seasoned with a heavy French accent, Cassel’s voice carries across the phone in loud bursts of rat-a-tat-tat enthusiasm. “You would think that playing a character commonly known as the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ would be an actor’s dream,” explains Cassel, “but it can also be a curse. When I saw ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula,’ I lost track of who Gary Oldman was. With the Mesrine films, I never wanted to lose this guy behind all of the disguises. He had to be recognized somehow.”

Creating some consistent vein of familiarity, however, was daunting. Mesrine, of course, lived in an era preceding Youtube, and his look and mannerisms were difficult to track down. “There were no videos,” claims Cassel. “Just recordings and pictures. He had a slight lisp when he talked, which I used in the movies. American audiences will probably not pick up on it (the French-speaking films are subtitled in English), but it’s there.”

Like most sociopaths, Mesrine armed himself with not only with guns – but also a massive stockpile of surface swagger. When this charismatic charmer initially lays eyes on Sofia (Elena Anaya), the virginal Spanish beauty who would soon become his first wife, he wins her affections through impassioned nightclub dancing and gentle lovemaking. Later in the film, however, the once-affectionate husband lets down this superficial veneer. Sophia gets wise to her spouse’s clandestine livelihood of thievery, and threatens to call the police. Suddenly, she’s being kicked down the stairs, with a pistol shoved into her mouth.

“When Mesrine died, many in France and Europe perceived him as somewhat sympathetic. A folk hero. But I didn’t want to avoid the negative side of the guy. I never lost the fact that he was a racist. He was violent to women. But people still liked him.”

Wait a minute. Here’s a superficial narcissist who threatens to blow a woman’s brains out, kicks in faces, and loots banks, often two at a time (the efficient multi-tasker was fond of robbing one bank, then crossing the street to stick up its nearest competitor). Why would anyone admire Mesrine? Why, for instance, would legendary French metal band Trust immortalize the man with their hit anthem “Antisocial”?

As Cassel explains it, French left-wing newspapers, including Paris Match and Liberation, loved to use Mesrine as an anti-government icon. As a result, those who despised the powers-that-be revered Mesrine as a kind of Robin Hood.

“These papers would underline the fact that he escaped from prison three times. They were basically making fun of the government’s incompetence. Mesrine was used as a weapon against power. And he loved the attention. He eventually abused the publicity, however, after managing to be on the cover of Paris Match threatening the government. At that point, he was dead. The police shot him in the middle of the street, and exposed the body on television. He was looked at as a much-too-loud clown.”

As with every self-serving cretin, there’s usually a nugget of decency to be chipped off their otherwise callous veneer. In Mesrine’s case – and perhaps another reason for his popularity – was a staunch loyalty to his supporters. Unlike, say, the backstabbing, traitorous Jimmy the Gent from “Goodfellas,” Mesrine rewarded comrades with an ironclad allegiance. After a spectacular prison escape, Mesrine actually returns to the same maximum-security hellhole with guns blazing, intent on springing fellow felons. In another tense scene, a trembling family is ordered, at gunpoint, to drive him across several police roadblocks. While most onscreen killers would eventually snuff out these potential witnesses, Mesrine provides them with a smile, a handshake, and a hefty stack of greenbacks.

“These are real details,” insists Cassel. “I spoke with the guy who drove the car. Mesrine was a man of his word. He was courageous, and man of honor. He gave you his word, and would make good on it, even though he might die. This was the only pure part of the character.”

According to Cassel, the film’s completion was a seven-year process. During this lengthy period of production, those claiming to be associates of Mesrine came pouring out of the woodwork. “I received emails from people who knew him as a kid. In France, everyone has a story about him. I’m sure some are not true, from tellers who just want to get in on the legend. One guy said he would see Mesrine at a coffee shop, maybe wearing a wig or disguise. They would not report him, maybe out of respect or fear.”

Meanwhile, there were the genuine sources. Police officers. Accomplices. Family members.

“I met his children,” describes Cassel, somewhat hesitantly. “Sabrina was his older daughter. She said she was in tears thinking about her dad. It was a really striking moment. But she liked me, and was okay with the fact that I was playing him. She felt that was a positive thing.

“I also met his older son, who obviously missed his father. He sent me a little note for Christmas. He started calling me ‘Daddy.’ That was the scariest thing I ever went through. That’s not what I wanted, and I was very uncomfortable about this.”

Speaking of scary, the most frightening scene in the Mesrine movies doesn’t involve blood, guts, or guns. It involves a simple look. When a Canadian immigration officer refuses Mesrine’s request for citizenship, the bad news is met with a spine-chilling stare. It raises the hackles on one’s neck. It doesn’t leave you. It’s terrifying.

I ask Cassel how he conjures forth dread with a single, wordless gaze. What’s the secret? “The look is slightly too long,” explains Cassel with a laugh. “You don’t usually stare at people for that amount of time.”

You’ll be uncomfortable staring him down. He’s difficult to recognize beneath the latest clever disguise. But in the double-trouble assault of “Killer Instinct” and “Public Enemy No. 1,” it’s tough to take your eyes off Jacques Mesrine, cinema’s latest, greatest antihero to pelt the screen with lead.

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