Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Connection

Alternate Title:  The French French Connection

One sentence synopsis:     A crusading magistrate in 1970s Marseille fights organized drug gangs despite corruption and violence.

Things Havoc liked:  William Friedman's 1971 film, The French Connection, was a landmark of American cinema, the first R-rated movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and the source of one of the greatest car chases ever filmed. While a great many of you, being persons of sufficient wit and culture to appreciate my reviews, will have obviously seen this movie at some point in your lives, I would guess that the majority of you do not know that it was based entirely on a true story, of a very real heroin trafficking route which ran from Turkey to New York by way of Marseille, one which was indeed called The French Connection, and was run primarily by a network of organized Corsico-Italian gangsters for several decades. While the NYPD and the DEA both labored to destroy the French Connection, it was, in reality, the efforts of a series of French anti-organized-crime task forces under the command of a number of crusading magistrates who finally put an end to the French Connection once and for all. And so, rather than wait for Hollywood to tell the story properly (pause for laughter), French thriller director Cédric Jimenez has brought us France's version of the famous tale, some forty-five years after the original.

I normally like to cite actors in these reviews, be they the reason the film is good or bad, but as The Connection is a French film, the only actor any of you are liable to have heard of before is Jean Dujardin, of The Artist, of Monuments Men, and of many, many other things in France itself. I understand Dujardin to be an excellent actor, at least in theory, but his work in the films I've seen so far has been... decent at best. The Connection however puts him in the role of real French judge Pierre Michel and lets him play around with a character concept we've seen before (the justice-obsessed cop who won't play by the rules) in a setting we generally have not (reality). With a background in juvenile court, where he has clearly seen the ravages of drugs first-hand, Michel is not a perfectly clean cop. Hints of a gambling addiction are dropped periodically, and his efforts to break down the resolves of the omerta-coded gangsters that he interrogates are probably the best parts of the film. One memorable scene has him confront a mouthy gangster who denies that he has anything on him, by throwing the gangster an empty pistol, and when he catches it by surprise, telling his secretary in the same room to run the gun (a murder weapon) for fingerprints. It's a nice change from Batman beating the Joker with his fists, and leads logically to circumstances such as the one where Michel flies all the way to New York to interrogate a DEA-apprehended drug lord, who in turn takes one look at the Judge entering the room, and exclaims "Oh fuck, it's you..."

The other half of the drama is veteran actor-director Gilles Lellouche, of nothing I've ever seen before, playing real-life gang lord Gaëtan "Tany" Zampa, a man whom you can read more about here if you should happen to speak French. Zampa is Michel's foil, or vice versa, or however these things are supposed to work, but his characterization is excellent. Not a screaming Scarface-inspired maniac but a careful, menacing presence, whether executing a rival gangster in broad daylight or forcing a poorly-performing minion to overdose on cocaine, Zampa manages to get across the sheer, unremitting pressure of being a criminal boss must be, constantly looking out for any one of ten thousand things which could instantly end his tenure and position, from rival gangsters' bullets to a crusading magistrate with a chip on his shoulder. He gives the usual excuses on occasion, that he's just a businessman and job creator who sells a necessary product but nobody, including Zampa himself, seems to believe it. Above all, however, he is a man obsessed with not screwing everything up by hitting back at the police and lawyers who are after him, cognizant of what kind of heat a shootout with the cops can bring down. This renders his character reasonably unpredictable, as he may be the first mob boss I've ever seen to confront an underling who has failed him in a borderline-treasonous way, re-assure him that if he tells him everything, he won't be harmed, and then actually let the man go.

And that's... really all there is to the Connection, a dance between these two men, one which covers the better part of a decade, as Michel tries to bust Zampa and Zampa tries to avoid being busted while also staying alive. Director Jimenez films all this in a very 70s style of filmmaking, with lots of handheld cameras dragged along for the fun on police raids and gangster hits, and bleached, oversaturated color schemes as the characters bask in the sun of southern France. The effect is actually fairly similar to a film by Tarantino, which makes sense when you consider that it was movies like this one that he memorized and modeled his own style after when he made stuff like Reservoir Dogs. Complete with a wonderful period soundtrack, the film is simply what it claims to be, a New Wave-style cops-and-gangsters flick, the sort of film that would fit in just perfectly in the period it's supposedly about.

Things Havoc disliked: Handheld camera work is always a gamble, as it can easily translate into dreaded shakey-cam, and while The Connection isn't an action movie, it has its share of raids and gunfire like any good cop movie must. Obscuring all of that behind motion sickness may serve some stylistic point on occasion, but I've never been a fan of it.

Otherwise though, the film doesn't have a lot to criticize about it, save perhaps for the structure, which, being drawn from reality with a European approach, seems fairly unfocused. Marital problems arise and then disappear. Addictions are brought up and then left to hang. Secondary characters (all with names I don't recognize) disappear at the drop of a hat or are gunned down by other secondary characters without any idea as to who or what is killing them. At one point, an entire mob war subplot is dropped thanks to a flash forward, and we never get any sense of even who won it beyond the fact that some people are still alive and some are not. I don't mind a movie that expects you to keep up, but some tightening would be nice, especially given how much nuance is always lost in the subtitles of a foreign film.

Final thoughts:   As an avowed Francophile, I always am conscious of the risks that any review I make for a French film will be seen as simple cultural-fawning, and it's certainly true that French movies have fared better with me (particularly this year) than the output of such nations as Hungary or Russia. But a critic must above all be honest, and in all honestly, The Connection is an excellent film, tense when it needs to be, and made with a care and style that one does not often see on this side of the pond, even among indie directors. Insofar as any of you will even have the opportunity to see this film, I don't know how much my recommendation is worth, but if you aren't afraid of a subtitle or two, there are far, far worse options in your local cinemas at the moment.

Speaking of which...

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Well something needs terminating...

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