French Connection II

Director: John Frankenheimer      
Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Bernard Fresson

It's been a while since I've seen the Oscar-winning movie The French Connection, so my mind is a little hazy when I try to recall both the movie and what I thought of it. From what I recall, I think I was a little let down by it, after hearing so many raves about it for several years prior to watching it. Yes, I could see possibly why it had received so much notice "I don't think you're going to find any American DVDs in there." at the time - Gene Hackman was indeed great as Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, the hard look at the life of the New York underbelly was unlike anything previously seen, and the action sequences packed an equal punch as well. Though possibly due to seeing similar - and harder - stuff previously, the movie just came across as average to me. Even the famous scene of Doyle barrelling his car down the streets to catch a suspect on a subway train didn't do much for me.

So when I had a chance to watch French Connection II (yes, there is no "The" in the title), I wasn't expecting much, considering how so many sequels are inferior to the original. Also by the fact that memory of this sequel has faded so much over the years, it's become an unknown movie. Yes, this sequel does indeed have some problems that weigh it down. But to my surprise, it also had a lot of strengths. In fact, at the end of the movie, I felt more satisfied with this sequel than I had felt with the original.

You will recall that at the end of the first movie, the cops Hackman and Roy Scheider played made a valiant effort to get drug kingpin Alain Charnier (Rey), but he still managed to slip out of their fingers and escape from New York. The sequel starts several years later, though Scheider's character is nowhere to be found, nor is there any mention of him. (Scheider did, however, play a tough cop that shared the same first name in the unofficial follow-up The Seven-Ups in 1973.)

Hackman, however, does return as Doyle, and in the beginning of this sequel, he has just arrived in Marseilles after receiving orders from his New York captain to assist the French police with their struggle to shut down the drug network in the city. The reason Doyle's assistance is needed is because of his previous dealings with the rumored mastermind of the organization, Alain Charnier. "Come back! I just want to pick your feet!" Doyle is still his old racist and ornery self, and it doesn't come as a surprise that he resents being held back by the French task force, and ordered just to observe. His determination to do things his way just leads to disaster and more of a feeling of contempt from those "frogs" he's forced to work with. To make matters worse, Charnier not long afterwards discovers by accident that Doyle is there, and gets his goons to not only humiliate Doyle by kidnapping him, but shooting him up with heroin and turning him into an addict.

The next part of the movie - Doyle forced to go cold turkey in an effort to cure him - is extremely grueling to sit through. It not only shows us in graphic detail the torturous aspects of drug addiction, but a huge chunk of the total running time of the movie is devoted to showing us all this graphic detail. The horror of drugs is definitely not left to the imagination in this movie. It goes without saying that the key to showing us these gruesome detail lies on Hackman, and his performance of his slow withdrawal is outstanding - another Oscar-worthy performance. He doesn't just have to show the torture he's going through, he has to perform drunk as well as in agony at one point. And during that part of the entire sequence, he has a monologue that goes on for several minutes non-stop. It's one of the greatest bits of acting that I've ever seen.

Hackman isn't just good in this particular part of the movie. Earlier in the movie, he manages to show us several times a part of Doyle previously not seen. In one scene, we see him in a bar, struggling to communicate with the bartender and getting frustrated in the process. Though we see here another example of Doyle's contempt to people unlike him, we see something else that's surprising. As he keeps talking, it becomes clear that Doyle is lonely. Stuck in a country where there is precious little English, and managing to unconsciously mask his loneliness by talking to someone who doesn't really understand him, he shows this hidden side of himself. Of course, we don't get to see Doyle give us many examples of this, especially after he goes through withdrawal. After getting back on the street, although he may not actually say it, it's clear that Doyle desperately wants to kill those responsible for hurting him.

Hackman makes that rage of Doyle's very convincing, and we know that somewhere soon, someone's blood is going to spill. Of course, that means there's going to be some action sequences, though there aren't as many here (or elsewhere in the movie) that you might think there would be. Though the number of action sequences in French Connection II Doyle teaches the French that there is more than one meaning to "passing some gas".might not be exceptional, the quality of them certainly are. The best action sequence of all is one that takes place at a ship at dry dock. The sheer scale of it all is a wonder to behold, plus it is an original action sequence - there's no other action sequence like it in any other movies I have seen. The hotel sequence is very satisfying, considering what happened there previously and why it is happening. Several times in the movie are chases on foot that are quite exhausting to watch, since they go on for some time and you can feel just how tired the characters get.

In those foot chases, director Frankenheimer occasionally throws in some shots from the perspective of the runner as he climbs over obstacles or opens gates (with their hand sticking out from the bottom of the screen), a novel approach that takes you by surprise and keeps you watching. Frankenheimer directs this sequel with a much different approach than the style of the original. One interesting thing he does is not bother to use subtitles whenever there is any French dialogue - and there is a lot of French dialogue. Clearly, he was trying to give the audience a taste of what the character of Doyle was feeling, that he was a fish out of water and unable to adjust to this new environment. This feeling does come across, though sometimes it is as frustrating to us as it is to Doyle, because we don't know what is being said in a few key bits of dialogue.

There is a part of Frankenheimer's directorial style for this movie that comes off even stronger. In previous movies, France seems like a beautiful place, but Frankenhimer here drags us to the underbelly of France. We are shown the side of France the French Tourist Board doesn't want us to see - crumbling buildings, ghetto neighborhoods, street scum of all different sorts. Even the police station is a filthy place - the opening sequence shows the French police gutting fish in the courtyard, looking for smuggled drugs. This is not the France we know, and it also gives us that feeling of unfamiliarity, of confusion, as well as generating a bleak feeling that maybe this war the police are fighting is unwinnable.

There is fault with the movie, but the blame does not fall on Hackman or Frankenheimer - Doyle finds he's stumbled into the world's biggest bidet. the faults lies with the script. Aside from Doyle, the script fails to make any other character reasonably compelling. Though Doyle does primarily work with one particular French policeman (played by Bernard Fresson), we learn next to nothing about this guy, not just with his private life, but why he feels his own way is the best way to enforce the law. Charnier, Doyle's antagonist, has even less of a personality, and precious little screen time. If Doyle could have bounced off stronger characters, we might have had some great interactions.

The other fault I found with the script is that there is really not much story. Though plenty does happen in the movie that doesn't make it boring, after a while it occurred to me that there hadn't been that much that progressed the key elements of the story that much. There's a lot that we don't need to see, especially with a running length at almost two hours long - though if that material had been eliminated, we would have had quite a short movie. I can't help but look at the wasted time and the thin characters, and think about the movie that might have been. If it had been, I think this movie wouldn't be unknown. As it is right now, it does at least manage to more than qualify itself as very satisfying entertainment when you want to relax and not have something particularly heavy to watch.

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See also: Crack House, Keaton's Cop, The Last Marshal