The French Connection II
US (1975) Dir. John Frankenheimer
Four years after the multi-Oscar winning success of The French Connection, this sequel arrived and while it is a continuation of sorts of the central story from the first film, it is a non-canon work with only two returning cast members and a different director. Since many sequels fail to live up to the triumph of their predecessors, there is a lot of pressure on this film to avoid this fate.
In what appears to be an exchange programme, bull-headed cop Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), now formerly of the NYPD Narcotics department, is sent to Marseilles in France to catch elusive drugs baron Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), who escaped capture at the end of the first film. Doyle is to work alongside the French police, despite not speaking a word of French, which is as much of a handicap as his aggressive and unruly manner.
Straight away we miss the yin-yang dichotomy of Popeye and his partner in the first film Cloudy. Filling his shoes is French Inspector Henri Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), who is less tolerant of Doyle’s brash manner but unlike Cloudy and other people, Henri isn’t afraid to get in Doyle’s face and shout him down. Does this faze Doyle at all? Does it hell! It does create an interesting dynamic as we now have two bulls regularly butting heads and testing each other’s nerve with rarely any quarter given by either man.
This combustible relationship shows no signs of smoothing itself out as Doyle is resolute in his obsessive pursuit of Charnier, and will track him down with or without Henri’s help. Inevitably there has to be a turning point but the script cleverly keeps us waiting for it to happen, allowing the thawing out of their frosty partnership happen exponentially rather than after a contrived moment of understanding.
Providing the catalyst for this change of heart is a decidedly evil method of torture by Charnier when he spots Doyle and has his kidnapped. Locked up in a grimy bedsit, Doyle is routinely injected with heroin until he is in such a state he will answer Charnier’s questions in return for a fix. It’s a deliberately gruesome and vile tactic, not in the least as it is used on a cop who plays it by the book, but something of a creative masterstroke from screenwriters Laurie Dillon, Robert Dillon and Alexander Jacobs.
In the first film, the centrepiece was arguably the exciting car chase; here the centrepiece is something different – the incredible performance of Gene Hackman as Doyle is turned into a hopeless junkie before he undergoes a painful rehabilitation and detox period. This brings the pace to a halt as we watch Doyle go cold turkey while Henri tries to give him a much support as possible (I don’t know if Whisky is a good idea though) but Hackman makes it all the more endurable.
For the first time Doyle opens up and even when he is blabbering on about baseball we start to see a human being emerge from behind the tough, volatile exterior of the man nicknamed Popeye. This is the closest thing we get to an info dump on the background of his character but it is sufficient in fleshing his persona out while maintaining some mystique about him.
The Marseilles setting gives way to some a fairly light hearted opening act as fish-out-of-water Doyle tries to navigate his way through the city without being able to communicate with anyone. Having already caused the death of an undercover officer Doyle is already in Henri’s bad books – Henri being one of the few bilingual characters in the film – and his attempts to charm the locals falls equally flat. A key example, is a toe-curling David Brent-esque moment as Doyle tries to chat up some French ladies while struggling to order a drink.
The absence of something akin to another car chase fits in with director John Frankenheimer’s desire to not clone William Friedkin’s film, but we are given a substitute of sorts with Doyle chasing Charnier on foot, complete with POV shots, to add a little suspense to the proceedings. Action wise this sequel keeps it to a minimum, but this isn’t to the film’s detriment, having established itself early on as being focused on the story and character driven than the first film.
Keen not to imitate Friedkin’s style from the first film, Frankenheimer relies less on the documentary style mise-en-scene and intimate camerawork, yet catches the same gritty feel and unpolished look of the seedy underbelly of Marseilles. The structure conforms to that of a standard narrative, right up until the final shot at least, giving the film its own personality yet there is a distinct sense of shared DNA between both outings without the sense of duplication.
Fernando Rey gets a little more screen time here to demonstrate how ruthless a villain Charnier really is, while Bernard Fresson is a lot of fun as Henri, a stocky little man who looks ready to burst because of his own heated temperament and not because of Doyle’s! But as opine earlier, this again is Hackman’s film and one could argue he should have been nominated for a second Oscar but Jack Nicholson made One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest the same year so…
It’s a select group but The French Connection II unquestionably deserves its place among those film sequels which stand up comfortably alongside its predecessor. John Frankenheimer has achieved something quite remarkable in being able to follow in someone else’s footsteps and not drop the ball, and in the process of continuing a fine legacy has also delivered a film that works exceptionally well as a superb crime thriller in its own right.
In conclusion, The French Connection films are two high quality action thrillers that make for a deadly one-two knockout punch!