The mere mention of The French Connection conjures images of William Friedkin’s prototypically gritty police thriller that set up the contrast between Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), the emotionally troubled but doggedly determined cop, and Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), the urbane European drug dealer — the smooth criminal, if there ever was one — supplying pure heroin to all of North America like a contemporary conglomerate ruling the international market. Friedkin’s narrative focuses on the mean streets of New York City and features the signature car chase sequence by which all others are judged. It should also be noted that The French Connection was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won five — Best Picture, Actor (Hackman), Director, Adapted Screenplay and Editing. And four years later, John Frankenheimer helmed a sequel with Doyle (Hackman) once again going after Charnier (Rey), this time tracking him to Marseille.
Now, more than 40 years later, Cédric Jimenez (directing and co-writing with Audrey Diwan) shifts the perspective, setting his sights on Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin), a committed French police magistrate who goes after this powerful drug ring, and in particular Tany Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), the ultra-suave head who nonetheless is not above exacting revenge and punishment on his own. Michel is a historic figure in France, and has already been the subject of a feature film (The Judge in 1984, which, like Friedkin’s French Connection, had the added benefit of arriving on the scene soon after the period it captured), but the distance from the subject and the times grants the proceedings a degree of epic scaling that suits the period.
U.S. audiences will need to make a subtle adjustment, though. The 1970s in France and throughout the European settings is not the gritty and hellish version we are used to from Friedkin and his contemporaries (think Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola for starters). There is a sense of refinement in all things, even the criminal, with suited gangsters and police officers taking the fight to one another. But that doesn’t mean there is less action or violence.
Jimenez starts things off with a pair of men on a bike zipping through the streets, weaving in and out of traffic purposefully — we more than suspect a hit is to come — but the tension arises from how routine the scene feels. This is not a hurried, frantically cut sequence; instead, the leisurely tracking takes the edge off the inevitable act. It remains shocking and brutal, with an explosive efficiency so out of place next to the barrage of gunfire we tend to expect from such situations. Those Europeans — even when they kill people, they do so with style.
Such focus and discipline would be impossible for a Hollywood filmmaker working the period beat. And yet, The Connection, much like The French Connection, is all about a study of contrasts, although Michel is not the bombastic live wire that Doyle was. He is a family man with a wife and two daughters, and a quiet lawman supporting a drug addict informant seeking to kick the habit. He shares stories about his own addiction to gambling with an intensity that speaks to his consuming drive, which will emerge later in the story; having him tell us and then being able to see it play out is a shrewd move by Jimenez.
His counterpart, Zampa, is cut from a similar cloth. He too is a family man and uniquely of his time. He spends time in his wife’s disco — with his men hovering nearby — and it is in these scenes that we recognize the more obvious period markers. Jimenez shows us the escalating violence between Zampa and his rivals, in particular Le Fou (Benoît Magimel), but all of that dissipates, leaving us with Zampa and Michel.
Astute fans of crime dramas will latch onto the dynamic between these two as an extension of the intensely professional relationship between Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) in Michael Mann’s Heat. Jimenez even gives us a scene in which Zampa and Michel meet face-to-face on the side of the road. It lacks the portent of Heat’s powerhouse match-up, but the respect is clear and present, and Dujardin and Lellouche have a similar look about them that heightens the sense of them as opposite sides of the same coin.
The Connection has a softer visceral touch, but its impact still stings, thanks to the way Jimenez establishes key links to the gritty past and our sometimes jarringly abrupt contemporary crime thrillers, while remaining faithful to his native sensibilities and roots. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: B