L'Instinct de mort is the first of a two-part crime film based on the life of the infamous Jacques Mesrine (pronounced, he insists, with a silent 's') as related by himself in the book of the same title. Jean-Paul Belmondo had originally bought the rights for L'Instinct de mort, intending to make a film, but this was not to be.
Vincent Cassel is ideal for the role. This first part traces his life from 1959 to 1972, from his being a soldier with the gruelling, violent French war against Algeria. Back in France he has no wish to have an honest, conventional job and turns to a life of crime with his old schoolfriend Paul (Gilles Lelouche), whose boss is Guido (Gérard Depardieu), who will serve as protection to Mesrine. Later, Paul and Guido will be murdered by unknown attackers, although by then Mesrine will be elsewhere.
Mesrine's life in the first part is of him in various countries, briefly in Spain (where he meets his wife Sofia (Elena Anaya), and to whom he is later divorced), but also for instance Québec and the USA. Although he's tried to go straight he's basically a robber and a killer enjoying the high life which he's well aware be be temporary.