I’m a huge fan of Jean-Francois Richet‘s two part Mesrine crime epic, the first part of which, Killer Instinct, opens today. (Part 2, called Public Enemy #1, opens on September 3.) It’s not a great film — just a lean, well-honed and fast-moving one. Never bores, awfully hard to resist. Largely because of the rascally confidence that Vincent Cassel brings to his lead performance. Locomotive energy and brash charm = contact high.

Legendary French criminal Jacques Mesrine (i.e., “Mayreen“) was some kind of raging ego-fiend, but Cassell can’t help but make him half-likable or at least oddly fascinating. He never quite turns you off. Cassel is playing the most charismatic bad guy since — no exaggeration — Al Pacino‘s Tony Montana. Easily one of the strongest male performances of the year.

I have a feeling, incidentally, that this flick is going to go over big with gay guys. I was talking to a gay critic after seeing Part 1, and one of the things he said is that he’d like get fucked by Mesrine, or Cassel’s version rather. We all looked at the sidewalk when he said this, but still….that’s magnetism!

Abdel Raouf Dafri‘s script is adapted from Mesrine’s autobiographical novel, called “Killer Instinct.”

The two-parter isn’t a great film because it’s mainly just a character study of a stone sociopath delivered in a series of episodes, one after another after another in which this happens and that happens and this and that, and it just keeps going on for years and years, from France to Canada to the U.S. and back to France. And it’s a kick to watch but all it “says” in the end is (a) this guy is charmingly nuts, (b) he’s ballsy as hell, (c) he can’t see any further than his own hunger for big bags of money and pretty girls and media-reputation-burnishing, and (d) he’s virile and relentless and has a great smile.

But what I really love about these two films is the way Richet handles the action, which is to say with a kind of analog ’70s attitude — fast and ferocious and quickly cut but without any of the crap techniques and influences that so many American directors have bought into. Richet directs action like he’s never heard of Hong Kong action films of the ’90s, like he couldn’t give two shits about the Pang brothers, like he’s never seen a Tony Scott or a Michael Bay film, like he doesn’t have the first clue what CGI might be. It’s wonderful.

An HE piece called “Genre in a Cage,” which I posted on 7.22, explained that “action films are caught in a trap because all they want to do is top each other, and the only way to do that is to go more cartoon X-treme, and credibility be damned…anti-reality, wilder, more CG-ish or acrobatic in a Cirque de Soleil or Pang brothers fashion, more crazy-ass.

“Very few action thrillers have operated beyond these constrictions and delivered by their own style and criteria. The Matrix, the only honorable film in the Wachowski brothers’ misbegotten trilogy, did this. So did Alfonso Cuaron‘s Children of Men. Ditto the Bourne films by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass and Phillip Noyce‘s Salt. But for the most part the action genre has become a kind of entrapment — a minimum security prison patrolled by armed guards (i.e., studio executives) in which certain rules have to be followed…or else.”

We can now add the Mesrine films to the list of escapees. I don’t know if it’s possible for an American studio-backed director to make an actioner in the same no-frills fashion that Richet has done, but I don’t think it’s likely. The system demands perverse bullshit in the jibbety-jappity video-game mode, and it’s a relief beyond description to marvel at a film that does it the old-fashioned way — thrillingly and believably, and never calling attention to any audacious sense of style except, welcomely, a lack of one. More of this, please.