French Connection II (1975) August 29, 2009Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
Tags: Fernando Rey, Gene Hackman, John Frankenheimer
A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009
Sequels in Hollywood are often nothing more than opportunity to exploit familiar plots, situations and themes. Hollywood filmmakers rarely use sequels as opportunity to approach those plots, situations and themes differently. One of such rare examples happened in 1975 when John Frankenheimer with his action thriller FRENCH CONNECTION II tried to make a very different film from Oscar-winning FRENCH CONNECTION.
There are two things those two FRENCH CONNECTIONS have in common – the protagonist and the villain. James “Popeye” Doyle (played by Gene Hackman) is a New York City narcotics detective who managed to bring down international drug smugling ring. His triumph was, however, spoiled by accidental shooting of federal agent and successful escape of Alain Charnier (played by Fernando Rey), ring’s suave French leader. Determined to finish the job, Doyle takes the opportunity to travel to Marseilles and challenge his nemesis on native soil. This challenge looks pathetic, because Doyle, otherwise formidable street-smart investigator, can’t speak any French and has to rely on local police, led by Inspector Barthelemy (played by Bernard Fresson), whose members are increasingly frusrated by his antics. Doyle’s presence on the steets of Marseilles, however, upsets Charnier enough to make him plot terrible vengeance on his American nemesis.
Apart from being sequel of immensely successful and influential film, FRENCH CONNECTION II is additionally burdened with age. Unlike Friedkin’s film, whose nitty-gritty realism gives reliable glimpse of early 1970s urban America, FRENCH CONNECTION II looks lost in space and time. Marseilles locations, costumes and props might be authentic, but the audience is less likely to catch glimpse of mid-1970s France and more likely to experience bad mid-1970s Hollywood filmmaking.
This is most evident in police film cliches that burdened the genre to this day – single dedicated detective against all-powerful criminal mastermind, his reluctant “by-the-book” colleague who gradually approves of his methods and massive shootouts. Those cliches are more likely to be annoying to the viewer because FRENCH CONNECTION II has serious problems with pacing and rather weak plot. Character of Doyle is already established, but the script nevertheless spends too much time solely focused on him and his unsuccessful attempts to do his job deprived of friends, colleagues and familiar context. The results is overlong film with scenes in which Doyle makes incomprehensible baseball references, pathetically hits on local girls and gets drunk. The only thing making those scenes watchable is Hackman’s unquestionable acting talent.
This talent again becomes evident in the film’s best remembered scenes when Doyle gets kidnapped by Charnier’s henchmen and receive heroin shots in order to develop drug habit. Those scenes, and the scenes in which Barthelemy stubbornly (and inexplicably) help him kick the habit are great display of acting talent, but they look like they belong to another film.
This was probably Frankenheimer’s idea – to make FRENCH CONNECTION II as different from FRENCH CONNECTION as possible. Sequel also provided opportunity to deal with two potential flaws of Friedkin’s film. The first was allegedly sensationalist approach to drugs; unlike 1971 film, this one shows through Doyle’s ordeal what the narcotics can do to someone and why fighting drugs makes such sense. The other was lack of proper closure. Frankenheimer in his film provides a closure with extended chase scene that ends abruptly and shockingly. This shock, however, quickly wears off and the viewer is left with an impression of a Hollywood sequel that tried different routes but in the end reached same destination as most Hollywood sequels do.