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May 28, 2015
Not only for its title (the original one is actually La French), but especially story-wise, The Connection inevitably recalls William Friedkin’s 1971 thriller The French Connection. This is the untold true story of how the same syndicate featured in Friedkin’s classic, was taken down by Police Magistrate Pierre Michel in Marseilles.
Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (The Artist) plays the magistrate with great charisma, decked out in dapper polyester suits and 70s sideburns. His nemesis, the real life playboy gangster Tany Zampa is played by Gilles Lellouche as a slick business man whose business just happens to be heroin. The location of Marseilles is important as it gives the film its own unique and glossy feel compared to if it was set somewhere more familiar such as Paris.
We follow Pierre Michel who starts off working with troubled kids. The film takes great lengths with a bit of a heavy hand to set up Pierre Michel’s motivation by his exposure to the end result of the drug trade. Pierre Michel is very much like a character that would have been played by Glenn Ford in a 50s film noir: he’s handsome, efficient and very driven to take down his adversary, however his obsession comes at great cost to his life at home with his family.
Dujardin plays him with grace and shows off real movie star quality; he is wonderfully cast as the rugged hero. Once Pierre Michel is put on the case, he decides to bend the rules to make things happen and starts seeing results. At the same time we follow Zampa and his efforts to maintain control of his crew and his business whilst the police make their advances towards him. What ensues is a war between the police and the criminals.
On paper, The Connection should work really well as there is a strong cast, a spectacular true story and it’s set in a sexy location during a cool time period. Unfortunately, the film tries far too hard but doesn’t have the basics in place. The structure goes from ham-fisted family drama to tiresome police procedural, to lots of pointless machismo and back again. The film seems lost without a strong tone and much of it falls very flat. Being incredibly derivative makes this flatness even worse as we are constantly forced to remember films that have done this better (including… The French Connection).
This is a gorgeous looking period film and the filmmakers have worked hard to get the details right. There are also some inventive moments in the way that Pierre Michel and Zampa operate which add humour (sometimes quite dark humour) throughout. Dujardin gets some great lines. However, Pierre Michel’s family life is done in big melodramatic scenes, particularly with his wife played by Celine Sallette who isn’t given very much to do except shout and cry. Zampa’s are little more than extras. A stronger tone would have made the policing part of the story more fun but unfortunately due to the lack of atmosphere in the film, these sections don’t have any danger or interest. It is all done very straight but blunt, no edges.
The characters’ bravado is probably where the film falls the most. They look right and act right but it comes across as forced. Gilles Lellouche does not convince as the ruthless drug kingpin. His performance has no real threat to it. He is portrayed more as a businessman but this doesn’t work in such a generic film. For such a dangerous character that has control over so much, he has no bite. He gives it his best shot but there is not enough in the material to help him out.
The sprawling supporting cast all serve the story but are one dimensional with no motivations of their own. The female characters are pretty much non-existent. Pierre Michel’s fellow policemen and Zampa’s crew are entirely forgettable. This makes it difficult to care when some of them are bumped off during the course of the running time.
Some of the best films in this genre thrive precisely because of the strong female characters and interesting cast of supporting players. One extra in a Scorsese film is more interesting than most of the characters in this film. In particular, there is a Heat kind of moment when Zampa and Pierre Michel finally meet in person and talk which is shoe-horned in so Dujardin and Lellouche can be in a scene together. This would be forgiven but the resulting scene isn’t even worth all the fuss that was made in order to lead to it.
The Connection doesn’t lack ambition but due to the lack of real atmosphere, a far too long running time and a reliance on clichés, it tries to tick all the genre’s boxes and in doing so, it crosses out the most important ones.
The Connection is released in UK cinemas on May 29th