That's not to say that Cassel is one-dimensional - his Mesrine is romantic, charismatic and admirably daring. However, while this entertaining if not earth-shattering gangster flick wears its American influences with pride it's a little less in thrall than its ancestors to the idea of the gangster as hero. Mesrine's mentor, Guido (played by Gerard Depardieu with a style, and a waistline, that pays clear homage to the later Brando) is clear that a life of crime is at worst its own death sentence, and at best a passport to a seedy kind of power that's only worth having if you really can't bear the straight life. Mesrine himself, for all his flair, is more Pesci than De Niro - misogynistic, lacking in self-control and capable of astonishing cruelty.
There are some spectacular moments. The interrogation scene in Algeria where Mesrine learns the power of disobedience via a profoundly ambiguous act of mercy uses a shaky camera and ambiguous framing to terrifying effect, while the first prison break is the film's crowning moment - a masterpiece of sustained tension. However, they are strung together in a frustratingly bitty, elliptical manner that suggests this is directed at an audience who already understand what they're seeing and are quite capable of filling in the backstory - Mesrine is as well known in France as, say, the Kray Twins are in the UK. This matters less when the pace picks up and the bullets are flying, but in the early part of the film it makes for a draggy and slightly confusing experience that somehow seems less than the sum of its parts.
This is a two part film - the finale is released some time next month. I'll definitely be going to see the next chapter, but I won't necessarily be expecting as much as I did the first time around.