Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: William Friedkin
Written by: Ernest Tidyman
(based on the book THE FRENCH CONNECTION by Robin Moore)
Starring: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Frédéric de Pasquale & Bill Hickman
Though it was directed by renowned filmmaker William Friedkin, received the 1971 Academy Award for Best Picture, and contains one of the greatest car chases ever put to film, I never got around to watching THE FRENCH CONNECTION until now. Very much a movie of its time (based on a true story that occurred in the 1960’s), this gritty police thriller contains a couple of fantastic performances, some well-constructed suspense and a dark tone throughout. Though it’s not without a couple of problems, THE FRENCH CONNECTION should thrill Friedkin fans as well as those who enjoy a solid cops-and-criminals flick.
Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo are two New York City cops who specialize in undercover drug stings. Though they’re good at their jobs, they aren’t above beating a dealer to a bloody pulp in order to get information. The boys discover that something big may be on the horizon as a wealthy French criminal and his deadly hitman have enacted a devious scheme to smuggle a lot of heroin into the country undetected. Doyle and Russo decide to make it their mission to stop the illegal transaction from going down and catch the criminals involved. This is far easier said than done.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION’s plot is fairly straight-forward with a couple of minor twists thrown into the mix during the third act. You can pretty much guess where the story is heading for a majority of the story, but that’s not necessarily a detriment to the film. Sometimes, the simplest stories can be the most powerful. Director Friedkin keeps a careful eye behind the camera and manages to capture every bit of grime and grit present in each scene. This only adds to the dark, brooding tone of this thriller that has no trouble building substantial tension throughout the well-paced plot. That being said, the handheld camera work both makes the film feel gritty and real as well as downright amateurish during a couple of sequences.
The best sequence of the entire film is definitely the stand-out car chase between Doyle (in a borrowed pedestrian vehicle) and the desperate hitman (on an elevated train). This is where the movie has a few happy accidents in stuntmen not quite hitting their mark and the car being involved in a couple of minor collisions. However, Friedkin (realizing the potential of what these collisions could add to the already amazing sequence) kept these mistakes in order to heighten the suspense as Doyle pursues his target. It’s an excellent piece of filmmaking to say the least. Even if you don’t plan on watching this movie, I recommend that you just look up this scene on YouTube if only to watch one of the best car chases ever put to film.
As far as performances go, Gene Hackman is perfectly cast as Doyle. Hackman has a penchant for playing unhinged, dark characters and that reputation might very well have begun with THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Though I was supposed to be rooting for Doyle, he had very noticeable flaws (a severe bad attitude and an automatic trigger-finger) that kept him at a distance from my full sympathies. With significantly less screen time, Roy Scheider is more likable as his partner. Meanwhile, Fernando Rey and Marcel Bozzulffi are great as the villains. The same cannot be said for Bill Hickman as FBI agent Mulderig, who feels more like a plot device than an actual character. Mulderig’s so-so presence makes one moment during the conclusion (which should have been shocking) into more of a shrug-inducing bit of irony.
Besides the shaky handheld camera work (which becomes downright annoying during a couple of scenes), THE FRENCH CONNECTION has one noticeable continuity error that stuck out like a sore thumb. This comes in a night-time establishing shot that transitions immediately to the next close-up taking place in broad daylight. I rewound this scene twice in bewilderment in an effort to rationalize it being there, but it simply seems to be one big noticeable mistake in an otherwise enjoyable thriller. THE FRENCH CONNECTION is an entertaining (though flawed) cops vs. criminals flick that has a simple story, great performances, and is loaded with tension.