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The code that gangsters live and die by apparently translates across borders. In Mesrine: Killer Instinct, a French killer and thief invokes “the rules” when an enemy attempts to take him out while he’s walking with his young daughter. But his boss scoffs with a line that belongs in Animal Kingdom: “The only rule in this world is the law of the jungle.”

The fittest in this first of a two-part series is Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), a former soldier who gets bored living with his parents and working in a factory after the Algerian war. So he joins a friend with the “under-the-table” job of armed robbery, supervised by the Vito Corleone-esque Guido (an unrecognizable Gérard Depardieu). Mesrine proves a smooth criminal, coolly evading capture (in one funny scene, he and his partner pretend to be cops when owners catch them in their home) and readily puffing his feathers via trash talk or gunfire. The ladies, whores and otherwise, love him, and though Guido worries that Mesrine will change when he settles down with a Spanish brunette named Sophia (Elena Anaya) and has kids, that doesn’t happen until Mesrine finally serves some time in prison. He then takes a real job for about a second, but returns to crime when he’s laid off, telling an alarmed and soon battered Sophia, “Between you and my friends, I’ll always choose my friends.”

Jean-François Richet’s stylish, fast-moving adaptation of Mesrine’s autobiography is what Michael Mann’s dull biopic of John Dillinger, Public Enemies, should have been. Cassel, who’s thus far been relegated to small villainous roles in Hollywood, is handsome yet ratlike, charming yet brutal—balances that are crucial to finding something engaging in such a monster, especially over two films. (Mesrine and a partner-in-crime lover are even referred to as Bonnie and Clyde.) Scriptwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri doesn’t waste a word over 113 minutes, with dialogue that is sharp but not too clever and always moves Mesrine’s story forward. If you want a straight-up history lesson, look elsewhere: An opening disclaimer states that “[a]ll films are part fiction. No film can re-create the complexity of a human life, each with its own point of view.” To illustrate, Richet offers multiple-frame views of a man and a woman surreptitiously meeting; the gimmick is unnecessary and annoying, but it’s over with the intro credits.

For a film about a gangster, Mesrine is remarkably conservative with its bullets—not that there aren’t bucketloads. But whereas some of the only particulars that sticks in Public Enemies are the constant sprays of gunfire, the violence here feels more organic than gratuitous. And when things really go boom, it’s spectacular, including a tense, late-chapter prison breakout and a literally explosive subsequent scene in which Mesrine and a fellow escapee return to the jailyard to bust out more of their peers.

There’s maximum bloodshed but minimal blood; an epilogue following this chapter’s necessarily open ending tells of the unfortunate before getting to its antihero. “As for Jacques Mesrine,” the title card teases, “end of part 1.”