"ALL FILMS ARE PART FICTION. No film can recreate the complexity of a human life, each with its point of view." This is the director Jean-François Richet's disclaimer at the beginning of Mesrine: Killer Instinct, the first part of a true crime masterpiece that attempts to do just that. Seeming apologetic at first, in hindsight Richet's words read more as a defense against coming across as cocky.

At over four hours, Instinct and its sequel, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, portray the career of the gangster Jacques Mesrine. Equal parts folk hero and arch-villain, Mesrine was one of France's most colorful and notorious criminals—a kidnapper, bank robber, and escape artist of unparalleled audacity. Based in part on Mesrine's autobiography, Richet's films almost match the breadth of the first two Godfather movies but, unlike Coppola's fictional family portrait, Instinct and Enemy never widen their focus beyond one subject: Mesrine (Vincent Cassel). Like Mesrine himself, Richet's camera is unconcerned with how the gangster's actions affect his family, friends, and victims; with blind ambition, Mesrine charges through life like a conquering army, leaving a trail of lovers and bodies in his wake.

The story of one man's pursuit of infamy at all costs is only as strong as its subject. Thankfully, Cassel gives a monster performance, easily carrying both films. Through Cassel, Mesrine radiates an irresistible charm and fierce loyalty that belie the pitiless violence that made him legend.

The portrait Richet paints of Mesrine is almost pointillistic, composed of small moments and exchanges: We see Mesrine cooking, dancing, joking, menacing, shooting innocents, breaking out of maximum security prisons, crying at his father's hospital bed, sticking a gun in his wife's mouth. Richet gives each clip equal import, asking the viewer to assemble them as they will—to vilify and admire as they see fit. It is this, above all else, that separates Instinct and Enemy from Scarface and the dozens of movies that followed in that film's wake, painting the world of crime in broad, vibrant strokes. Like most of us, Mesrine's life was not a grand, baroque tragedy, but a jumble of actions and consequences.

It's a biographical approach more typical of books than movies, yet here it pays off. Though they cannot fully recreate the complexity of a human life, Richet's films do their damnedest.