Clues as to the specific content of this ’70s-set crime drama lie in both the original French title (La French) and its international name used for the purposes of this review (The Connection). Directed by Cédric Jimenez, and co-written by Jiminez with Audrey Diwan, the fast-paced story covers some of the same ground as William Friedkin and John Frankenheimer’s The French Connection / French Connection II, however this time from a Gallic perspective; where those earlier films saw Gene Hackman’s New York cop ‘Popeye’ Doyle smashing a Marseille-based trafficking ring, here Jean Dujardin plays French magistrate Pierre Michel, who was instrumental in tackling the port city’s mob and disrupting their activities in the heroin trade in real life.
Michel’s nemesis in the mid-to-late 1970s was mob boss Gaëtan ‘Tany’ Zampa, a Neapolitan played here with menace by Dujardin’s close friend Gilles Lellouche. Jimenez devotes an equal amount of screen time to both men in his film; thus we see plenty of Michel’s endeavours to uncover and put a halt to Zampa’s operations, specifically the conversion of Turkish opium into heroin before it is shipped to the United States, but there are also a number of scenes dedicated to the gangster’s attempts to cement his hold on the drug business. It is all dealt with in an energetic style that brings to mind Martin Scorsese’s epic, crime-driven dramas, particularly GoodFellas and Casino, with an array of characters coming and going and similar fast-cut montages moving the plot forward in a dizzying, speedy fashion. The editing by Sophie Reine is particularly worthy of praise and echoes the work of Thelma Schoonmaker on those two earlier American films.
Parallels are drawn between Michel and Zampa’s respective lives at home with their families, while professionally both are driven and share a taste for flamboyance: The Connection has an almost metronomic beat of popping champagne corks as both men repeatedly celebrate small victories and achievements, one trying to knock an empire down and the other trying to keep it intact, while their French riviera playboy credentials are enhanced by their suave, smooth demeanours (all crisp suits and slicked-back hair). Additionally, a little conveniently perhaps, the problems they face are also shown to be similar: their headaches sometimes come from within their respective organisations and so where Zampa must deal with ambitious rival gangster ‘Le Fou’ (translating as ‘Crazy Horse’ and played by Benoît Magimel, who also appeared alongside Dujardin and Lellouche in Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies), Michel’s organised crime squad is compromised by the presence of several corrupt Corsican cops, led by Gérard Meylan’s old-timer Ange.
It is arguably a bit of a stretch to believe that these fictional versions of Michel and Zampa have equivalent familial pressures, too, something that the screenplay goes to great lengths to suggest. Michel’s dedication to his work leaves his wife Jacqueline (Céline Sallette) feeling neglected, and it is her decision to leave that finally sees him crack, reducing the magistrate to tears and revealing his hitherto well-hidden insecurities. Around the same time Zampa confides in a lieutenant that his money is running out and a huge nightclub he runs is losing money, news he does not want to reveal to wife Christiane (Mélanie Doutey) as he fears it will alter her opinion of him as a man. Where Michel’s family time is interrupted by work-related calls that see him scurrying away from the dinner table, Zampa is unable to dedicate time to his youngest child due to the high turnover of mobsters arriving at his house (usually with bad news).
Jimenez is a Marseille native, and the film serves as a fine tour of his city, with a large number of locations used: there are scenes in nightclubs, narrow streets, around the harbour and on the cliffs surrounding the bay, and the sheer number of settings is in keeping with the sprawling, epic feel: the story takes in those in high places, such as the FBI and the mob in New York or the corrupt politicians in France’s second city looking to grab on to Francois Mitterand’s coattails, while also detailing to a certain degree the actions of the footsoldiers fighting the drug war, most obviously through Guillaume Gouix’s young, trustworthy policeman.
The Connection is an entertaining film, sumptuously-shout, and packed with all the exciting drug busts, hits and sporadic acts of violence you’d expect (although the moments of quiet add plenty of meat to the bones and ensure well-drawn, believable characters). It follows a few genre conventions a little too closely, while there is some repetition that ensures it sags a little in the final act, but for the most part it’s an exhilarating, well-acted crime drama that has understandably made a lot of money in France, and should do well internationally. It may lack a little of the heft of Scorsese’s best work, or that director’s ability to dazzle with both violent and non-violent set pieces, but that’s not to say weight and flair are missing. This will appeal to the veteran director’s fans and those who enjoyed Jean-François Richet’s two-parter Mesrine.
Directed by: Cédric Jimenez.
Written by: Cédric Jimenez, Audrey Diwan.
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Céline Sallette, Mélanie Doutey, Guillaume Gouix, Benoît Magimel.
Cinematography: Laurent Tangy.
Editing: Sophie Reine.
Music: Guillaume Roussel.
Running Time: 135 minutes.