08/25/2010 08:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Movie Review: The Mesrine Films

Mention The Godfather or Scarface or Goodfellas -- it doesn't matter which American gangster epic you reference, chances are Jean-Francois Richet's pair of Mesrine films stack up pretty well as an example of gutsy, energetic and thoughtful filmmaking.

The two films are Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, which won a variety of awards in France when they were released there. The matched set opens in limited release on consecutive weeks in New York - Killer Instinct on Friday (8/27/10), Public Enemy #1 on Sept. 3.

Movies don't come with much more vitality, excitement and suspense than the Mesrine films. Starring the hulkingly suave Vincent Cassel as late French gangster Jacques Mesrine (who was killed by police in 1979, after 20-plus years of robbing banks), the "Mesrine" films are a fiercely elegant blend of thriller and character study, built around a French outlaw who is charismatic and captivating.

As played by Cassel with a blend of confidence, cool and occasional confusion, Jacques Mesrine (pronounced, as he keeps reminding people, may-REEN) begins as a disaffected young Frenchman in 1950s France, having served in the French Army in Algeria during that uprising. He's been party to torture and killed men, so a square job arranged for him by his father seems pretty dull.

Instead, he joins forces with a chum and starts pulling burglaries, eventually coming to the attention of local crime boss Guido (Gerard Depardieu). Jacques winds up with a Spanish wife and a child and, eventually, Jacques' bull-headed methods -- such as robbing a bank, then spontaneously walking across the street to rob a second bank -- earn him a stint in jail.

He comes out determined to go straight, to take care of his family and bring home a paycheck. But when he's laid off, he winds up back with Guido. Eventually, however, with other criminals moving in on his territory, Jacques bolts for Canada, winding up in Montreal. There, he starts out working a straight job -- then tries his hand at robbing banks and winds up in a maximum-security prison.

By the end of the first film, he's not only absconded from the prison in a daring daylight escape - but he comes back with a colleague, intent on blasting his way back in to set his fellow convicts free.

The second film begins with Mesrine back in captivity in France, having been caught and deported from the U.S. But not for long:

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