Vincent Cassel did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Jacques Mesrine in Mesrine.
This starts right from the outset of the film where we briefly get the man's time in Algiers in the French military where he brutally kills a few Algerian rebels. The moment seems important enough as he is pushed into doing it and Cassel successfully carries the scene in conveying the hesitation through a sense of fear in his eyes before going through with the killing itself. The killing though which Cassel brings a certain sense of thrill in the action, even if it is still raw with the pain of the uncertainty of it. It is the first killing though as Cassel makes it appropriately unpleasant though creating the sense of the potential comfort the man will eventually have with such behavior. The film quickly jumps away from this story which seems like it should have a had a bit more time to, and brings him right into his life back in France. This too is rushed as his friend offers him life in the French underworld rather quickly. One cannot fault Cassel in these scenes particularly not in an early moment where Mesrine covers being caught in burglary by pretending to be an investigating detective. Cassel brings this real energy to the moment with a notable charisma that comes from this sense of daring he exudes so well as he puts on the performance as the detective. Cassel is convincing in that he not only convinces within the film that Mesrine would pull off this act, but also is convincing in creating the idea of a man who try to pull off such a trick.
His sort of more daring attitude though is soon tempered by veteran gangster Guido (Gerard Depardieu). Although this is only slightly again as the film continues to move without stopping. Again Cassel is certainly good in his moment of losing sort of that bluster as Guido attempts to teach him a few lessons, while also naturally having him committing more crimes. This is interlaced with Mesrine also avenging his prostitute/pseudo gangster who is mutilated by another gangster. Cassel himself portrays effectively this whole action being one more of pride in himself than wholly genuine sympathy to the woman. In the killing itself though Cassel delivers the proper brutality in portraying the intensity of the man's sadism in the moment though this whole facet of the story was in a bit too much of a hurry. Of course this quickly supplanted by his relationship with his first wife a relative innocent in the world. Cassel is terrific in his initial scenes by delivering such a genuine charm as he wins her over, and bringing an earnestness as he offers the words of a better man. Cassel portrays well that these words while true in the moment are reactionary in the moment than a genuine change. Mesrine is imprisoned though for his life and released just as quickly in the film's timeline to the point he temporarily goes straight. Again nothing against Cassel who in the two brief scenes of going straight we get, he depicts well a man now filled with modesty after being rid of any confidence due to his incarceration.
Of course even that is only given a moment, a moment Cassel sells, until it's back to being a hard bitten criminal again. Although the film doesn't make this at all a well paced transition Cassel makes it natural by portraying Mesrine as an ordinary worker more as a wounded dog, rather than an honest man, a wounded dog ready to strike out again when given the chance. A chance he is given as he rushes head first into crime again and now his relationship with his wife has completely deteriorated. It would have been nice if we got to see this with a bit more nuance, but the film just sends itself right to this point. Cassel's work is remarkable in that it doesn't seem disjointed at all by just showing the scene of Mesrine abusing his wife as the man's worst nature, which we saw in pieces including in those opening executions, come out again. She leaves him just as quickly leading him to strike up a new relationship with a woman, Jeanne (Cecile de France) with whom he goes on a crime spree with. This relationship is comical, both intentional and unintentionally, through how quickly it escalates from the two first speaking, to the two robbing together, to the two running to Canada to avoid the wrath of fellow gangsters, to the two kidnapping a millionaire in Canada, to the two getting caught in Canada. Now it might seem like I'm rushing through these plot points but the film spends about a brief scene each on them itself. Now the idea of this Bonnie and Clyde idea would seem potent enough for a whole film but the film devotes almost no time to it.
This is briefly put down when he undergoes brutal treatment by the maximum security prison in Canada. Cassel delivers properly in terms of creating the sense of the physical brutality of the scene by being in the moment within everyone of the various "treatments" they deliver Mesrine. Cassel realizes the natural exhaustion of both the mind and body, of even a strong willed man, from constant punishment. This is only really though acts as an encouragement to escape and become all the more of criminal for doing so. The escape, as well as the subsequent attempted mass breakout of the prison, mark the full change in Mesrine from any old criminal to more of a Scarface type. Cassel's performance in both the escape and the attack portrays this far more overtly stylized turn. Now this is very well handled by him because he does make it natural that Mesrine reaches that point. It also is not ill-fitting to the film, as he shows a man who purposefully is being a showman while he is being a a criminal. In that sense he is particularly effective as in the moments of "presentation" through Cassel showing such exuberance on the surface, though while also creating the right undercurrent of intensity fitting to a killer. This is where the second part takes him, which is the superior part as its pacing is far more refined. Cassel in part two in a way gets to relax a bit in comparison in that while Mesrine does have an arc of sorts it is far less extreme than the rushed one featured in the first part.
What Cassel portrays in the second part is this constant escalation of what is already a man at such an extreme. Cassel is interesting in that he finds places to go even when it would seem there is no where to go. In that he essentially finds the way the longer Mesrine keeps the act up the more grotesque it becomes. In the initial scenes of the second part Cassel creates the public's anti-hero through the zeal he finds in the role, and that sheer euphoria he exudes whenever the man commits his ill-deeds. The longer this goes on the more and more Cassel makes it less and less appealing. This is not in his own performance but rather in the realization of the man trying to keep this image going no matter how ugly it is becoming. Cassel is remarkable in becoming tired in the act within the act by expressing how uncomfortable it is for Mesrine as he tries to be more than he is. Cassel goes further in this once Mesrine attempts to find some halfhearted causes he acts as though he is fighting for them and tries to pretend to have some sort of philosophy in his criminal activities. Cassel is properly not convincing in these scenes of lending the philosophy. In that he shows well the false bluster of a man who is less absolutely convinced of his views, but rather is absolutely convinced he must convince himself to attempt to give his life any meaning. It is a fascinating idea that I wish the film delved more into although Cassel does explore it as well as he can in his portrayal. Now in terms of Cassel finding the hidden man within the act of Mesrine I will say is perhaps the most powerful moments throughout both films, though they are only brief scenes are those were he interacts with his immediate family. I will say these don't feel rushed actually but are rather effectively interspersed as the few times we can see the man out of the criminal life. One of these moments comes when he visits his dying father in the hospital and Cassel is moving by completely dropping the Mesrine act in this scene just to show a son trying to connect with his father one more time. He's great at revealing the man behind all the bluster in his kind delivery of his last words to his father. The other most important scene in this vein is when his grown daughter comes to visit him in prison. Cassel again leaves all the delusions of grandeur out the door instead just offering this most tender instance of a father attempting to express his love for his daughter. It is genuinely affecting as Cassel convincingly finds perhaps the bit goodness in the man deep within his act of being the world's most infamous criminal. Cassel's work here is consistently compelling even when the film falters. I will say more probably could have come from it if the arc of the man had been better established through the writing of the film in the first part, though Cassel's work is admirable by finding cohesion within that frantic pace. The performance is the best part of both films, and he delivers as the titular criminal even when the films sometimes fall short.