Translated as “The Connection” for English markets and its post-Toronto bow here at the Tokyo International Film Festival, but running under the title of “La French” at home, it seems an effort is being made to link the new policier from French director Cedric Jimenez to its famous forebear, William Friedkin’s certified classic “The French Connection.” But the story has minimal overlap with that of Popeye Doyle & co, and the comparison might ultimately be to this film’s detriment. A lot of the virtues of Friedkin’s movie—the lean, muscular masculinity, the grit and lived-in grime—are absent from this much more lavish, lengthy crime flick, which only occasionally travels to U.S. shores, and is set in 1975, four years after “The French Connection” was even released. Which kind of warps the mind to think about—the characters in the film, when they refer to the “French Connection” are meant to be talking about the notorious real-life drug ring that linked Turkey, France, and the U.S. in an international heroin-based game of pass-the-parcel, but they could plausibly just be major Gene Hackman fans. That’s perhaps a little facetious, but it is indicative of the film’s central issue: so much of it refers to other films—it’s more or less a test-tube baby composed of equal parts “Goodfellas,” “The Godfather,” “Heat,” and “Scarface”—that the whole enterprise can’t help but feel a little ersatz, with its fetishizable fashions and Marseillaise locations somehow even further working to insulate the movie from the true story it purports to tell.
But that’s not to say it is without pleasures. Those self-same snappy duds and classic cars (revel in the majesty of the glorious Citroen DS) are exceptionally easy on the eye, especially when accessorized by the suave likes of Jean Dujardin, who plays the pioneering magistrate engaged in a years-long pursuit of a local drug kingpin (Gilles Lellouche, himself no slouch in the clotheshorse department). The locations and other period detailing are often stunning, with one particular moment serving to add “wear halterneck dress on speedboat across rock-lined Cote d’Azur bay” to this writer’s bucket list. However, as an actual cop/gangster movie, or indeed as an actual true crime tale, the film falls far short of the touchstone movies it so frequently and obviously mimics (there are entire nightclub scenes that feel constantly on the verge of panning past Tony Montana) allowing the pacing to flag often over the course of its too-long runtime, and assuming we’re more invested in the fates of certain characters than it has ever given us reason to be.
The story begins with a local juvenile court magistrate, Pierre Michel (Dujardin), whom we already know is the crusading, incorruptible sort by the compassionate personal interest he takes in a young junkie called Lily, as he is given a major promotion to head up the organized crime task force. The big noise in the Marseillaise drug trade (and therefore the man ultimately responsible for “La French” as well as for Lily’s untimely but motivationally convenient death) is the Neapolitan Gaetano “Tany” Zampa (Lellouche), but the entrenched nature of his mafia-esque organization means he is beyond Michel’s reach, at least initially. Instead, he goes after Zampa’s lieutenants, earning first the grudging respect and then the all-out hero worship of the police under his command when he proves himself an adherent of the “end justifying the means” school of thought. Illegal wiretaps, arrests without proper warrants, unsanctioned surveillance—Michel authorizes them all, and a smarter, less obvious film might make something of those moral compromises. But this is not that film, and Michel’s scant respect for due process is put forth by Jimenez (also the film’s co-writer) as a further reason to cheer him from the sidelines.
From there, the film wends its way through every single gangster/crime flick trope in the book—intra-mob rivalry, the ruthless treatment of traitors and informants, police corruption that is then discovered to go “right to the very top.” And the way many of the set pieces are staged feels familiar too. A particular scene is cross-cut so as to mislead us into thinking the drug lab is on the premises being raided when of course it is not, and of course we know it’s not, having seen a film or two before this one.
Part of the issue is that all of its handsome period work, skillful handheld photography, and homagistic filmmaking (which needn’t necessarily be an issue—Jimenez is borrowing from the best, after all) is really put in service of the kind of central cat-and-mouse battle of wits that requires there to be some parity between the nemeses. And Jimenez has clearly watched both “Heat” and “American Gangster,” and engineers an extremely contrived sequence which exists purely to get his bad guy and his good guy alone on a hillside, exchanging hardboiled world views and veiled threats. But Dujardin is an actor whose talents (and eyebrows) seem more suited to light comedy, and as such is no Pacino, nor even a Russell Crowe. Lellouche is better in a reptilian Liam Neeson sort of way, but the film is too straightfaced in its focus on the good guy as the hero, and so we get a lot of classic stuff about the hard life of a dedicated cop (he confesses to having previously been a gambling addict, and at one point his wife leaves him and takes the kids) without ever really feeling the character’s inner conflict. Which is signaled mainly by the dishevelment of his hair anyway.
“The Connection” is certainly watchable, and highly marketable, what with having Dujardin’s name above the title and the whole Friedkin angle to mine. And its beats and rhythms are entirely, comfortingly familiar to anyone conversant with U.S. cinema, so even the stigma of subtitles shouldn’t seriously impact its reception whenever Drafthouse, who acquired it recently, chooses to release it stateside. But like the peppy soundtrack cuts of American songs sung in French (“These Boots are Made for Walkin’” being one) “The Connection” feels at best like a cover version of the classic American crime films of the 1970s, and at worst like so much glossily mounted karaoke. [C]