by Matt Levine
In 1971, William Friedkin’s The French Connection introduced us to Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a hard-drinking, cocksure narcotics detective who, with his partner “Cloudy” Russo, takes down a French heroin-smuggling ring in New York City. Both the gritty, low-budget film and Popeye Doyle himself were greeted as raw-nerve revelations in the New American Cinema--The French Connection won five Oscars, including a Best Actor statue for Gene Hackman's performance as Popeye. Shot with lightweight handheld cameras to achieve a documentary feel and showcasing a belligerent, bigoted antihero, this was a new kind of action film—one that tapped into the societal unrest and existential malaise that permeated the US in the early '70s. Four years later, 20th Century Fox tried to repeat The French Connection's success with a tossed-off sequel—a pattern that has since become commonplace in Hollywood, though obligatory sequels were less of an inevitability back then. Essentially a lesson in screwing up everything that its vaunted predecessor did so well, French Connection II is the worst combination for an action movie: both dull and self-indulgent.
Director: John Frankenheimer
Producer: Robert L. Rosen
Writers: Alexander Jacobs, Robert Dillon, Laurie Dillon
Cinematographer: Claude Renoir
Editor: Tom Rolf
Music: Don Ellis
Cast: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Bernard Fresson, Philippe Leotard, Ed Lauter, Charles Millot, Jean-Pierre Castaldi, Cathleen Nesbitt
US Theatrical Release: May 18, 1975
US Distributor: 20th Century Fox
While the 1971 original was based on true events, it’s pretty clear that the sequel is based exclusively on outworn cop-movie formulas. This time around, Popeye is sent to Marseille to track down the drug kingpin who escaped at the end of the first film, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Considering he speaks no French at all and mistakenly kills an FBI agent at the end of The French Connection, it’s highly unlikely Popeye would be sent on a solo mission to track down an elusive gangster, but this is a plot hole that could easily be forgiven if French Connection II was invigorating or distinct (sadly, it's neither).
One of the strengths of The French Connection was its evocative New York setting, captured in all of its brick-and-steam filth from Bed-Stuy to a seedy Times Square circa 1971. Popeye was at home in this setting, literally and figuratively: the griminess of the environs correlates perfectly to his aggressive, abrasive persona. Transplanted to Marseille, where he quickly makes enemies by yelling out English to all French people as though they’re idiots and casually alluding to them as “frogs,” Popeye is only a xenophobic fish out of water, unsure how to track down his elusive prey. Popeye’s geographic displacement and alienation could have been intriguing themes for the sequel to tackle, but it’s not very interested in exploring the character’s boorish American identity—it merely provides a simplistic antagonism between the antihero and the Frenchmen he’s forced to work with. This tension is made especially clear with Popeye’s relationship to the French police captain, Henri Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), who resents the American’s gung-ho attitude and stations him at a desk right next to the men’s restroom. Here's an indication of how seriously the movie treats the two characters' animosity: when Popeye growls at Henri, “Shove it!,” the Frenchman ludicrously replies, “You shove it!” This unintentionally hilarious moment might be the movie’s high point.
The plot of French Connection II consists entirely of Popeye’s quest to find and kill Charnier—so why is this thing two hours long? Much of the time is devoted to plumbing Popeye’s cryptic character, but he’s one of those enigmas where finding out more makes him less interesting. I don't intend to continue comparing the sequel to its infinitely superior predecessor, but the contrast is illuminating here as well: Popeye was so fascinating in the original because there were only glimmers of his multilayered persona, forcing the audience to wonder why he’s so destructively hell-bent on taking down these drug smugglers (notions of safety and propriety be damned). French Connection II, meanwhile, spends excessive amounts of time blandly observing Popeye’s lecherous efforts to pick up women, his brief friendship with an uncomprehending barman who somehow doesn’t know the word “whiskey,” and a painful monologue about Popeye’s love of baseball and the time he tried out for the New York Yankees (only to be beaten by Mickey Mantle).
Granted, this last sequence occurs during a (painfully long) stretch of the film in which Popeye, having been hooked on heroin by Charnier’s henchmen after they apprehend him, is forced to go cold turkey by Captain Barthélémy after he’s rescued by the French police. Again, this could be a powerful and unique plot development: seeing this gruff, no-nonsense detective at the mercy of severe withdrawal (from the very narcotics he’s tasked with suppressing) could provide a sobering emotional subtext and dark insight into this stoic character. Instead, we’re treated to a boring, endlessly showboating scene in which Hackman emotes to the rafters. His performance here has been acclaimed, and maybe it’s admirably committed for the first two minutes; then the next two minutes start to seem dull and self-indulgent, until the scene finally resembles an inept self-parody. Attempting to deepen the character-driven bleakness of The French Connection, the filmmakers here make the mistake of assuming that more backstory equals a more interesting personality—when in fact such histrionic verbosity makes us less sympathetic to Popeye’s plight.
Some of these faults could be excused if French Connection II provided riveting action, but we’re out of luck here too. For a 119-minute film, there’s an alarming lack of action sequences, as they take up maybe ten minutes of the total running time. There are some suspenseful scenes in which Charnier’s henchmen follow Popeye through the mazelike streets of Marseille, but they’re over much too quickly and are unimaginatively shot and edited. After he recovers from withdrawal, Popeye’s raid on Charnier’s lair is foolishly conceived as a blaze of vengeance, whereby Popeye lights an entire hotel on fire in retaliation for his heroin-induced debasement. Not only does Popeye’s conflagration ensure a lack of any thrilling action during this raid (watching a man pour gasoline and light a match is not exactly dynamic cinema); it’s also completely preposterous, as Popeye (despite how bull-headed and grimly determined he is) would not destroy an entire building and endanger countless civilians in such a ludicrous bid at payback. It’s one of many instances in which the film substitutes crass metaphor for identifiable human behavior, eliminating any emotional investment we might have had.
The only spark of adrenaline arrives during the climax, when Popeye runs seemingly through the entire city, tracking down Charnier on a yacht slowly drifting out to sea. It’s admittedly a thrilling scene (enlivened by Hackman’s refusal to let a stunt double do the running—he seems completely drained by the end of the sequence), and it can be forgiven for failing to outdo the celebrated car chase from the original. Even here, though, director John Frankenheimer commits some unforgivable mistakes—namely filming some of the chase scene from a handheld POV perspective, with a saturated color scheme and faded film stock, and even including Popeye’s hands in front of the camera as though we’re playing a first-person shooter video game. The intent, it seems, is to recreate the low-angle front-bumper POV shots from The French Connection’s car chase, but Frankenheimer fails to understand what makes such stylistic gimmicks so effective: such out-of-place moments in French Connection II’s climax are simply distracting and pointless, apparently desperate attempts to achieve a hollow concept of innovation. The chase—and the film itself—ends so abruptly that one might assume it’s meant to be an existential statement on the finality and emptiness of vengeance, but considering the shoddy filmmaking that has defined the movie up to this point, there is a likelier explanation: having traced an arbitrary plotline from start to finish, the filmmakers don’t know what else to do and simply cut to black. The ending instills a feeling of indifference and disappointment—by this point an unfortunately familiar sensation.
There is a lot of talent on French Connection II’s cast and crew, from Hackman (who is victimized by irredeemable material) to director Frankenheimer, who helmed such 1960s action classics as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and The Train (1964). Cinematographer Claude Renoir, well-known for his collaborations with Henri-Georges Clouzot and his uncle Jean Renoir, evokes some beautifully vivid colors on the streets of Marseille, although the compositions and camera movements themselves betray a surprising lack of creativity. Finally, Don Ellis, who created the first film’s memorable Lalo Schiffrin-on-acid musical score, this time provides a messy soundtrack in which generic cop-drama music is interspersed with the shrieks and clangs of free jazz; the result is neither interesting nor exciting, as attempts to imitate the striking newness of The French Connection again result in empty, self-indulgent “artiness.”
Ultimately, the question we have to ask is: what went wrong? How did such a strong template provided by the first film, with so much talent on both sides of the camera, end up with something so dull and preposterous? The likeliest answer is also one that’s become distressingly familiar over the years: in its attempt to revisit phenomenal success through a tossed-off sequel, Hollywood instead belies its motivation to recoup profits through pre-tested patterns and formulas. Such needless sequels may not be a deadly drug, but it’s still disheartening to see such a noxious narcotic smuggled into movie theaters.