Hollywood has long had a love affair with real-life gangsters: John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson. A few decades ago, there was a crime boss in France who captured the public imagination just the same way. His name was Jacques Mesrine, and he's captured in film, too.

The new movie is "Mesrine: Killer Instinct." Our critic Bob Mondello says this French bad guy gives his American rivals a cinematic run for their money.

BOB MONDELLO: Jacques Mesrine is coldblooded, hot-tempered, brutal, and wields a killer smile. This biopic, adapted from a memoir that Mesrine wrote while in jail, takes him from shooting unarmed rebels in Algiers, to robbing banks and kidnapping a wealthy employer in Canada, to breaking out and then back into a supposedly escape-proof prison.

The filmmakers never even remotely try to make him appealing. But they sure make him seductive. At one point, they have him dancing with a woman who'll soon be his wife - sexy, slow and somehow, he's also dancing with the camera. As she melts in his arms, the audience gets caught up in his embrace.

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MONDELLO: Then Mesrine returns to his whore, slaughters a pimp, buries a guy alive, and you think, oh, yeah, there's that side of him.

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MONDELLO: Jacques Mesrine is played by Vincent Cassell - a tall, lanky French star whose intensity is a lot like that of the young Gerard Depardieu.

That comparison occurs to me because Depardieu is in this picture, playing a gentlemanly, older thug who takes Mesrine under his wing and tries to show him how to keep violence and his domestic life separate.

Doesn't work. The violence escalates even as Mesrine becomes a father, and escalates more when he meets a prostitute who says she's up for anything, and becomes a Bonnie to his Clyde.

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MONDELLO: The real Mesrine was known as a man of a thousand faces. And the film or rather, films - the second of which arrives in theaters next month - cover the whole of his criminal career.

Director Jean-Francois Richet shot this picture, "Mesrine: Killer Instinct," and the next one, "Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One," in one long, epic shoot, across nine months and several continents. And though there was some talk about condensing the two parts into a single film for American audiences, wiser heads have prevailed.

Richet and his screenwriter, who also wrote the terrific French gangster film "A Prophet" - so he's having a pretty good year - make it a point not to glorify their subject. But that doesn't keep "Killer Instinct" from playing like a classic gangster flick. This is still the upward half of the story arc, remember? He's still hitting his criminal stride.

The fall and paranoia will come in the next part, when he becomes "Public Enemy Number One." And anyone who sees this half is going to be clamoring to catch that half on opening day.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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