Jean Dujardin in Drafthouse Films’ crime thriller The Connection. (Courtesy of Drafthouse Films)
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s a French crime syndicate operating out of Marseilles imported heroin by the metric ton into the ports of New York City, making tens of millions in profit while ruining countless lives with their deadly product. The American side of this lurid tale was told spectacularly in William Friedkin’s 1971 masterpiece The French Connection. Now, director Cedric Jimenez (Aux yeux de tous) attempts to bring the Gallic version of events to the big screen with his latest crime epic The Connection.
Whereas Friedkin chose to place gruff. wild-eyed, loose cannon Popeye Doyle at the epicenter of his razor-sharp Connection, Jimenez instead chooses a fittingly generic protagonist in obsessive, by-the-book magistrate Pierre Michel (The Artist’s Jean Dujardin) to propel his infinitely more generic film. Michel starts off as a lowly juvenile drug-offender case manager in the mild city of Metz, but diligently works his way up the ladder until he’s transferred to the dangerous Connection stronghold of Marseille. There, he finds himself at odds with the brutal local kingpin Gaetan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), a wily smooth operator with a non-existant moral compass.
Rather than focusing on a contained, limited period of time, Jimenez and co-writer Audrey Diwan, choose to tell this story in epic fashion—spanning decades as Michel and Zampa duke it out on the streets and the courtrooms of Southern France. Over the course of nearly three hours, we see nearly every beat of Michel’s tireless slog towards justice, looking on impassively as he attempts to wreak dissent among Zampa’s capos, visits New York to collaborate with American anti-drug task forces, and even gets involved in a gang war between Zampa and his younger rival Le Fou (Benoit Magimel). The case suffers ups and downs— Michel’s wife Jacqueline (Celine Sallette) leaves him, the case gets re-assigned by Marseille’s corrupt mayor—but finally, and predictably, Michel gets his man.
On a technical level, The Connection is head-and-shoulders above the majority of France’s sloppily produced farces and glacially pretentious festival hits. This film was clearly made to prove a point to investors and audiences alike: “high caliber, prestige drama doesn’t need to be imported from the U.S. or Britain.” On a superficial level, that message comes across loud and clear: Laurent Tangy’s vibrant, controlled cinematography is truly a sight to behold, and the incredible work of production designer Guillame Roussel puts this past year’s Oscar contenders in the field to shame. Unfortunately, the convoluted story and unoriginal style of The Connection only serve to undermine its masterful presentation.
Seemingly going out of its way to cut short any comparisons, this film replaces the grimy, gritty sleaze of its earlier, New World counterpart with a slick, clinical sheen akin to David Fincher’s Zodiac. Unlike that two-hander, however, Jimenez’s would-be opus avoids any psychological nuance, stylistic quirks, or indeed anything that might set it apart from every major American(!) crime picture of the last twenty years. Here we’ve got the “two-sides-of-the-same-coin” dualism of Michael Mann’s Heat, but Dujardin and Lellouche have nowhere near the gravitas or chemistry of DeNiro and Pacino. Then there’s also the shock-and-awe violence of, say, The Departed, except without any black humor or winking irony to prop it up.
Indeed, at the end of The Connection’s seemingly endless run time, one can’t help but feel like they’ve just taken a transatlantic flight from Los Angeles to Paris—that is to say that the experience of this film is akin to lazily viewing three separate movies that you’ve already seen while the distant throb of dead air in the background provokes a dull headache. And all that without any complementary champagne no less.
Now playing in select theaters.
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