The French Connectionis a classic film that all of us have heard about and many, if not most, have seen. It won five Oscars in 1971, including best film, and was one of the biggest box office hits of that year as well. It also made Gene Hackman a movie star and put director William Friedkin on the map. But what not everyone knows it that a sequel was made four years later. It only made a quarter of what its predecessor made at the box office, didn’t get any Oscars and while most consider it pretty good it’s generally considered to be an inferior film and is mostly forgotten today.

Which is a pity as it’s actually quite excellent and in fact, even better than the first film.

This sequel picks up shortly after the original left off with New York policeman “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) still chasing after drug lord Charnier (Fernando Rey). Charnier was captured in the first film but then he bribed most of the New York police and all the evidence somehow “dissappeared”. Now Popeye has been sent to Marseilles to catch the man. But, of course, not everything is as it seems.

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This sequel only brings back two characters from the original, Doyle and Charnier, and it’s also got a new director in action maestro John Frankenheimer. Frankenheimer was clearly the right choice here as he ups the ante in the grittiness and knows how to stage a good shootout or chase, as well as bringing the right atmosphere. Not just the police procedure but also the atmosphere of the French city of Marseilles. It’s a very gritty film with realistic, almost documentary-like feeling to it. This sequel manages to revoke the spirit of the original and yet distinguish itself from it; it stands on its own two feet and has its own character. It’s also filled with great dialogue and has several excellent action set-pieces.

In narrative terms, French Connection IIis a pretty standard sequel. It follows the same hero on the same mission and has many similar elements. But in some ways, and what makes it truly unique and special, it’s as untypical and weird as sequels to megahits get. Not that the original was a very mainstream film but this one goes even further in its aversion to be an audience pleaser and is in fact largely a rather grim and unpleasant film. Which is very much a good thing in this case.

About halfway through, Hackman gets captured by Charnier and his goons and they proceed to shoot him up with heroin. Several times a day. For three weeks. And the audience really gets to feel it as this part of the film is weird and slow and uncomfortable. Then they release him to the cops who first have to draw his blood and then he has to go cold turkey! And of course he goes kind of crazy.

Yes people, nearly half of this movie is spent on a policeman forced to become a heroin addict and then going cold turkey. That’s some nasty shit right there.

French Connection II is partly a procedural police thriller, and succeeds very well at that with some suspenseful chase scenes and nicely executed shootouts. But it’s also a character study. It’s about the lengths some people will go to have justice fulfilled, a movie about a man obsessed with his job. Popeye Doyle is not a nice man, in fact he’s kind of a douchebag. And yet you feel sorry for him and end up kind of liking the bastard. This is a man who won’t let anything stop him in doing his job: To capture the criminal.

Gene Hackman was (and is) one of the greatest actors around and his performance in this movie might be his best one, and he’s hardly gotten any recognition for it!

The film’s best scene is a short one early in the movie in which Popeye enters a café and tries to order a drink. But the clerk doesn’t speak English so it takes him a while to make the clerk understand what it is that he wants. Throughout this ordeal they connect, despite the lingustic barriers, and end up getting drunk together. This scene has little to do with the main story (aside from the fact that Popeye notices two guys who are staking him out) but everything to do with both humanizing the curmudgeon police officer and shows he both connects with French culture while still clashing with it. They might not understand each other but they can still drink together!

The 1970’s was a very interesting time for Oscar-winning films as four of that decade’s 10 Oscar winners spawned sequels, and one of those ended up being an Oscar winner itself. French Connection II may not be as well-remembered as The Godfather Part II(though it’s at least not as forgotten The Sting II) but it’s really almost as good as that masterpiece. It’s a pity it doesn’t get more respect, but the middle chapter with Doyle going cold turkey seems to what bogs the movie down for some people. But for this viewer it’s what makes the so special, it’s bracing to see a Hollywood sequel so unwilling to conform to audiences’ expectations and just simply make us feel what a dirty job it can be to deal with crime. The film also ends at just the right place (SPOILER) where Doyle shoots Charnier and then the movie just ends. We don’t need to know what happens next.

But what would be like if people were making as many sequels to Academy Award winners as they did in the 70’s? Do we want to see sequels to The Artist, The Hurt Locker, The Departed or Gladiator? Maybe not, but then again they might be interesting. I for one would like to see a movie in which we see the two lovers from The Artist end up having a really failed marriage, they have kids and divorce and their careers in Hollywood wash up but then when they get old they have comebacks and become TV stars in the 60’s! Hmm, maybe not such a good idea… or is it?

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