Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Gene Hackman (Det. James ‘Popeye’ Doyle), Fernando Rey (Charnier / ‘Frog 1’), Bernard Fresson (Det. Barthélémy), Cathleen Nesbitt (The Old Lady), Philippe Leotard (Jacques).
Genre: Crime Thriller / Action / Drama
Well, this is an unlikely candidate you might think. Why not William Friedkin’s classic original? The French Connection is one of the most blistering crime thrillers not just of the 70s, but of any decade, and one of the most worthy Best Picture winners at the Oscars. The sequel is… not. A lot of people who love The French Connection aren’t even aware that there is a sequel. This film became a footnote in movie history. It deserves better.
If anything, Frankenheimer’s film is a grimier affair than Friedkin’s. Frankenheimer honours Friedkin’s original vision, playing the down and dirty realism of city streets, but the story takes harder turns this time around as Gene Hackman’s Det. James ‘Popeye’ Doyle risks everything to catch the man-who-got-away, Fernando Rey’s suave and elusive Charnier. Doyle has followed ‘Frog 1’ to Marseilles, but in doing so has put himself on the back foot. This is unfamiliar turf for the tough talking New Yorker, and the locals are quick to exploit him.
Doyle remains belligerent and obnoxious. A thorough antihero. Hackman puts in the performance of his career. Possibly, quite possibly, his work in French Connection 2 represents the most impressive screen acting I have ever seen. Sincerely.
Initially Doyle blunders his way through the French narcotics department’s investigation, rubbing everyone the wrong way and blowing an undercover cop’s rouse in the process. He’s a bull in a china shop. He shouldn’t carry favour with the audience…but he does.
The journey he takes us on through Doyle in this movie is unexpected, heartfelt and incredible. Having been used as bait by the French police, Doyle is abducted by Charnier’s men and forced into becoming a heroin addict. When French detective Barthélémy forces him to go cold turkey, a prolonged sequence takes place depicting Doyle’s aching withdrawal.
Hackman is fearless, running the gamut of emotions, stepping deliriously off into the void. From anger to defiance to pitiful baby bawling. His performance is crazy, more possessed medium than actor. Where he channels it from is unknown, but it is sensational. Difficult to watch, but kinetic. People argue for Pacino or Brando as the greatest of their generation. Watch French Connection 2 and the answer is Hackman. The ‘Popeye’ Doyle of the first movie was a self-centred wise-ass. Here we see that stripped away. Raw.
“Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” Doyle toys with his suspects, glib, and cruel. Compare that to his pathetic pleading for Hershey bars whilst suffering heroin withdrawal.
All the while Frankenheimer’s camera watches unphased, taking it all in like a merciless documentarian. French Connection 2 is alive with a kind of cinematic bravery not often seen these days. It is stripped down and confrontational, not only unafraid but keen to show us the ugliness of the world. This sensibility permeates every aspect of production. Everything is tarnished by grime, oil, rust. The world decaying. Even the soundtrack is tough. Brassy blurts and atonal squall. As such, it is a tough film to love, but love it I do.
Frankenheimer keeps his English-speaking audience on the back foot also. For those of us too ignorant or lazy to speak another language other than our own, there is an admirable lack of generosity here. No subtitles. We are in the tall grass, just like Doyle. Half drunk, half crazed, Doyle tries to relate to his carer, Detective Barthélémy, by talking to him about baseball. But Barthélémy cannot relate. The two share the scene but are, sadly, miles apart. It’s an affecting depiction of a stranger lost in a strange land.
Once Doyle is back on his feet, the film shifts gears. This has become personal, and Doyle intends to make people suffer. His wrath will bring the fires of hell to those who nearly brought him down. He becomes an unstoppable – if improbable – action hero.
From there we steam toward a show-stopping finish. Like The French Connection, this movie features a remarkable chase sequence. Wisely, Frankenheimer doesn’t attempt to top the previous film’s breakneck automobile antics, but instead takes it to the streets in a foot chase so arduous that you can’t help but wince. You can see Doyle’s heart practically exploding in his chest. It’s exhausting just sitting there watching it. Like the first movie, this one also finishes with the blunt punctuation of a gunshot and a black screen, leaving the audience feeling like they’ve taken the bullet themselves.
And that’s what makes this great, and easily the equal of its celebrated predecessor. French Connection 2 is the kind of rough and ready crime thriller that is completely of its time. For all its crude gore, action and sensationalism, there’s a sense of the real here that’s brought about through the rough-hewed textures of, well, everything. With Hackman’s commanding performance its brutal centre.
These films were The Wire of their day. And are no less important or brilliant.