The sleek new crime film “The Connection” is French and it tells the flip side of the story dramatized in 1975’s “The French Connection.” Still with me? Instead of New York undercover cop Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle waxing profane, dressing as Santa Claus, and busting a heroin ring, we have Jean Dujardin (best actor Oscar-winner for “The Artist” in 2012) as Pierre Michel, a cool but relentless (and real-life) Marseilles magistrate, squaring off against a regal drug kingpin, Gaitan “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), as the latter’s many-tentacled crime mob ships poison from France to America in the mid-to-late 1970s.
It’s a stylish affair, very solidly made if not exactly breaking new ground in our understanding of events or in the way the movies depict them. There are car chases but they’re civil; unlike in “The French Connection,” when the good guys speed after the bad guys here, the two end up pulling over for a macho chit-chat.
In this telling, Michel inherits the Marseilles drug enforcement squad after attempts to bring Zampa to justice have ground to a halt from bureaucratic inertia and possible corruption. Michel is young, he’s energetic, he has excellent sideburns, and he mixes high ideals with a willingness to bend the rules. The detectives under his command, young (Guillaume Gouix) and old (Bernard Blancan), have never seen anything like him, and neither have the hoods in Zampa’s organization. Using leads, surveillance, hunches, and the occasional assist from the US Drug Enforcement Agency — Michel’s main contact, apparently based on a real agent, is named John Cusack (Dominic Gould) — the French cops start making headway.
At the same time, director Cedric Jimenez shows us the inner workings of Zampa’s enterprise, with a depiction of the stresses that come with being a major heroin exporter that’s just cool enough to keep from seeming sympathetic. Lellouche has a great sharp shark’s face, and one of the key dramas of “The Connection” is watching it crease increasingly with doubt over the film’s expansive 135-minute running time.
Zampa has problems: a nightclub that’s sucking most of his money away, a chic wife (Melanie Doutey) who’s spending the rest, a subordinate gangster who’s shaping up to be a psycho rival. That last is a classic young-De Niro role, and Benoit Magimel plays it with an unpredictable charisma the movie sorely needs.
Michel has his own workplace and domestic issues. A mole or two may have invaded his department, and his wife (Celine Sallette in a thankless part) keeps threatening to take the kids and split. “The Connection” draws parallels between the cop and the crook but doesn’t really do anything with them other than to observe the men’s harried professionalism.
There’s clearly quite a bit of Michael Mann’s “Heat” to “The Connection,” not to mention touches of “The Godfather,” “The Untouchables,” and a smattering of Tarantino, particularly in the music choices. It’s an easy film to watch and become engrossed in, and it’s just as easy to forget, despite a true-life twist that darkens the final minutes without making much of an impact on the whole. Expertly shot, excitingly edited, smartly acted, “The Connection” never quite connects.
Watch the trailer: