These films about Jacques Mesrine – who was born on Dec. 28, 1936, and who died on Nov. 2, 1979 in a real hail of bullets – are extraordinarily successful. In structure they are more a single 4-hour film accommodates the likelihood that viewers will see it will be seen in two parts.

While Part 1, “Killer Instinct,” is fictionalized in places, as is Michael Mann’s much glossier “Public Enemies” (2009, about John Dillinger), this adaptation by Abdel Raouf Dafri stays close to the notorious French gangster’s history as recorded by others and by Mesrine himself in “L’Instinct de Mort,” the book he wrote in prison. The film includes his activities and imprisonment in Canada but not South America – perhaps a third film would have been too much. 

Director Richet deeply understands suspense in the face of violence. It is easy to become jaded, in these days of CGI and hyper-realistic special effects, about blood and gore in films. This film does not allow such apathy. The relationships between Mesrine (played to alternating charming and frightening perfection by Vincent Cassel) and his parents, lovers and friends feel real, and the violence does, too.

Mesrine (pronounced Me-rin, as the character insists) apparently became, as did John Dillinger in this country, something of a rock star. As one character says to him, “People are amused by you, but they are afraid of you.” The Robin Hood-like impression that many people had of him may have evolved  because Mesrine committed his numerous murders in the context of big businesses, robbing and kidnapping the wealthy and the banks. He was apparently very concerned about his reputation – he nearly killed (shown in a horrific scene in Part 2) a reporter who had cast aspersions on Mesrine’s character. Yet, in a scene that is truly moving, we see Mesrine risking his life to get into the hospital to see his critically ill father.

In “Part 1” the story proper begins in wartime Algeria, where, amidst a chaos of screaming, shouting and orders, the young soldier Jacques Mesrine is directed by his superior officer into brutality against a family. Later, back home in France, Mesrine cannot settle down to living with his parents or to legal work. Through an old friend he quickly gets involved in underworld activity. On his first “job,” the homeowners return early, surprising Mesrine and his friend in the act of stealing their valuables. Mesrine quickly takes on the manner of an undercover police officer and tells the couple that he and his “partner” walked in on thieves, stopping them, but that the valuables must for now go with the “police” to the police station as evidence. The couple accepts this and makes an appointment to be at the station the next day.

With this acting ability and quickness of wit, and the help of agility with physical disguise, the real Mesrine became known as “The Man of a Hundred Faces.” Many of these faces, including that of a man who could shift in an instant from apparent calm to uncontrollable fury, are seen in these films.

One cringes in apprehension, for example, in Part 2, of what may happen to the rural family that Mesrine  and his friend Besse (Mathieu Amalric, villain Dominic Greene in the Bond film “Quantum of Solace”) hijack. This is a diversionary tactic for Mesrine and Besse after their electrifying, unbelievable-but-true jailbreak from a maximum-security prison (not Mesrine’s first such escape). It is not clear until the end of the scene whether the family is to be murdered or freed, and then the audience’s emotional response to the outcome is palpable. It is also worth noting that this is not just Mr. Cassel’s show: Mr. Amalric is also frightening. The complicated relief the audience feels when the now-affable Mesrine enters the family dining room is a testament to both actors and their director.

The structure of the film is successful. “Killer Instinct” opens with the older Mesrine and his girlfriend, disguised, warily leaving their apartment building. They are multiplied into several frames of each, filmed looking this way, that way, clearly cautious and nervous. The two begin to drive, and at a red light a truck pulls in front them. The back canvas flap pulls up and a firing squad of police lifts their rifles and begins to shoot. This segment i frames both parts and both films as a whole. The beginning of “Public Enemy No. 1” takes this framing story of the virtual execution further, and the end, where Mesrine’s history has literally caught up with him, shows in detail how this end has come to pass.

“Mesrine – Part 1” won the French Cesar award for director Jean- François Richet and was nominated also for best film and best screenplay. “Part 2” won best actor for Vincent Cassel, best director for Mr. Richet, and best sound. It was nominated for a host of other categories including best film, best writing, best music written for a movie and others.

Few negatives come to mind with this film. This is more or less a history of Jacques Mesrine’s life and events in it. Gerard Depardieu plays beautifully his part as aging crime mentor in “Part 1,” though his portliness makes him look incongruous when he actually takes part in a crime. References outside the film say a corrupt guard sneaked to Mesrine the weapons for at least one of his escapes. This does seem more likely than that his attractive female lawyer was so smitten that she brought him guns, managing to get them through security with no difficulty whatsoever. And the only time the second film seemed a bit long was with the extended car chase scenes, which nonetheless felt very real and were by and large terrifically exciting. It seems probable that viewers will be more than happy to put up with a bit of silliness and a few too many minutes of zooming around at high speed through Paris, however, to experience such a good pair of films.

One of the best things about these films in French is that the subtitles are not only in real English, they are big – big enough to read and actually watch the film at the same time. One forgets fairly soon that one is reading the dialog, and hearing the actors speak is important to getting the full understanding of what they say.

‘Mesrine: Part 1 – Killer Instinct’ (L’Instinct de Mort, 2008) 113 min

‘Mesrine: Part 2 – Public Enemy No. 1’ (L’ennemi public n°1, 2008) 133 min

Both rated R for language, strong brutal violence and some sexual content