In director William Friedkin’s 1971 crime classic, “The French Connection,” two New York cops work to catch a massive heroin shipment from France. Gene Hackman plays pugnacious police officer Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. Fernando Rey co-stars as Doyle’s suave nemesis, drug smuggler Alain Charnier. Hackman’s performance won an Oscar.
“The Connection,” a crime drama from France that’s as stylish as it is serious, tells the French side of “The French Connection.” Jean Dujardin leads the cast as the crusading, real-life Marseille magistrate Pierre Michel.
American filmgoers familiar with Dujardin probably know him for his Oscar-winning performance in “The Artist.” Although the serious character he plays in “The Connection” lacks the pencil-thin mustache and comedic charm that Dujardin’s silent-screen star George Valentin flashed in “The Artist,” the actor’s natural on-screen charisma still lights “The Connection.” He’s a wonderfully expressive, immersive actor.
Michel’s entanglement with the Marseille mob begins after he’s moved from handling juvenile cases to organized crime. The police give him a crash course in his new assignment. The mob operates with impunity in Marseille. “A thug-ocracy rivaling none,” the magistrate is told. And the operation’s kingpin, Gaëtan ‘Tany’ Zampa, is untouchable.
Michel didn’t take the job of magistrate to do nothing. He tells the police to arrest small-time dealers and pimps. “We can’t reach the head, so we go for the tentacles.”
Suddenly, Michel and the police are making many arrests. Early success inspires joyful celebrations in the police station. But Zampa and his criminal forces, men who enforce their own ruthless methods of justice, will strike back.
Gilles Lellouche, who plays Zampa, appears alongside Dujardin on “The Connection” poster. The actor and character earn the billing. Michel and Zampa are generals in Marseille’s drug war.
During the initial stages of Michel’s campaign against the mob, Lellouche’s Zampa is complacent. After all, he’s been in his powerful position for 20 years. Starting from that cool complacency, however, Lellouche takes his crime lord character on a journey almost as challenging and multihued as the one Dujardin’s Michel makes.
The multidimensional “The Connection” also depicts Michel’s and Zampa’s personal lives. That invests moviegoers into both men’s fates. Director Cédric Jimenez and screenwriters Audrey Diwan and Cédric Jimenez concentrate especially on the gung-ho magistrate’s home life with his wife, Jacqueline (Céline Sallette), and their two daughters. Zampa also appears in scenes with his wife, Christiane (Mélanie Doutey), whom he obviously loves, and family.
If English speaking-only moviegoers can get past “The Connection’s” French dialogue and subtitles, the film has much to admire, including the classic 35-mm film with which it was shot.