French Connection II Review

(2.5 STARS)

I immediately fell in love with The French Connection after seeing it for the first time. I found it gritty and exciting, as well as a brilliant and influential character study. I actually didn’t even know there was a sequel. It’s so rarely mentioned that it completely slipped under my radar. But when it did come to my attention that I could spend another two hours with Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, I immediately shot The French Connection II to the top of my Netflix queue. Unfortunately, the magic is mostly gone. The film has a number of problems that not even an exciting conclusion and fantastic ending can solve. Despite the interesting premise, the film is a disappointment.

When the first film ended, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman, reprising his Oscar-winning performance) accidently killed a fellow cop in pursuit drug dealer Alain Chartier (Fernando Rey), whom he calls “Frog One.” The sequel takes Doyle to Marseilles, where he is still in pursuit of his nemesis. He hooks up with a French cop named Barthelemy (Bernard Fresson), who doesn’t much want him around. But soon, both of their worlds are thrown upside-down when Doyle is captured by Chartier’s men. He is kept for weeks, during which Chartier pumps him full of heroin. And when he is released, he goes through some difficult rehab, but one thing gets him through it—the chance to finally end this cat-and-mouse game with Frog One.

The French Connection II suffers from a number of narrative problems. None of them derails the project, but they add up to a pretty unsatisfying final product. The first, and probably biggest, is the decision to take Popeye out of New York. As he says several times throughout the film, New York is his town, and if he was in New York things would be going differently. The first film was so authentically New York that moving things to France makes things a bit awkward. This also leads to a meandering first third of the film which focuses more on Popeye being a fish-out-of-water than it does on any investigation.

The first film focused the majority of its attention on trailing Chartier and trying to nab him. In the sequel, we don’t get to that until nearly the 90-minute mark. The final thirty minutes are easily the film’s strongest because it finally gets back to what we loved about the original—good, old-fashioned police work. But the lengthy middle portion during which Popeye gets hooked on heroin, while intriguing on paper, doesn’t really work in the context of this motion picture.

That being said, the film has a few great things going for it. The ending to the first film was brilliant, and it’s equaled here. There’s no exposition, just a gunshot and a cut to black. It’s simple and quite effective.

The other major strength of the film is Hackman’s performance. The actor reportedly hated the character of Popeye, but you wouldn’t know it considering how well he does it. He has more of a challenge here with the rehab scenes, but he pulls it all off. The rest of the cast is solid, but I was disappointed with how little Fernando Rey had to do in the film. He isn’t even in it for all that long.

After director William Friedkin left the series, John Frankenheimer stepped in. He certainly is capable of crafting a solid motion picture (look to The Manchurian Candidate for an example of that). But he drops the ball on this one. With such iconic characters and a lot of room within the story to work, there was no reason The French Connection II should have been this forgettable. But alas, it is. It has faded into absolute obscurity. But at least we got some closure. Can’t complain about that.

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