Genre: Action, Crime, Thriller
Directed by: Cédric Jimenez
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Céline Sallette
Let’s be clear, The Connection is about the French Connection, but it’s not a remake of The French Connection (1971). Brave as it is to risk comparison to a widely acknowledged crime classic, there’s nary a car chase, subway shoot-out or pork pie hat wearing detective in sight in Cédric Jimenez’s Marseille set thriller. Instead, we have a dogged French magistrate spearheading efforts to take down the heart of the French Connection, a gang that ships in morphine from Turkey before cooking it up and exporting the resulting heroin onto New York.
Early on, text dates the action in Marseille 1975. Such is the sun-kissed grainy feel, it’s hardly needed. An opening scene of windswept violence sees a drive down the seafront come to an abrupt gunpowder heavy conclusion after vehicles have whipped by palm trees and a glistening blue ocean. This is a world of pastel suits, open-necked shirts and gaudy mirror-filled nightclubs. It’s also a world of invasive organised crime and a helpless police force that can’t even scrape together one single lead. Enter Magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin), moved from the Juvenile beat to shake up a moribund investigation.The story that follows is a drawn out game of cat and mouse that gets most of the simple things right. Revitalising the police taskforce with uncontainable energy, Michel seems to be the only person capable of finding a clue, never mind organising warrants and wiretapping, admittedly not always on a strictly legal basis. There are a number of set-pieces that work very well, normally police raids that play out with carefully paced cross-cutting, relying on an air of feverish anticipation to ramp up tension.
Less successful are attempts to build the characters into anything other than dogged pursuers of (im)moral ends. The film seems in a rush to portray Michel as a kind, empathetic guy, giving him a paternal relationship with a washed out drug addict (Pauline Burlet) that plays out too quickly to elicit an emotional response, as well as providing a somewhat implausible break in the case. There are also the obligatory arguments with his wife (Céline Sallette) when he starts to neglect home life in favour of endless stakeouts, late nights in the office and a brief foray across the pond to blithely bully a recent detainee into giving up his boss. Dujardin, a man preternaturally disposed to look good in period settings, handles it well, but it feels like he’s playing within himself, shorn of the meaty character details that would have allowed him to round Michel into something more than a straight arrow crime crusader.No one else fares any better. There’s an anonymity to the people on his own side, and blandness to the villains they chase across the city. Gilles Lellouche as chief gangster Gaëtan Zampa carries a certain austere violence about himself without much opportunity to unleash it on subordinates and opponents alike. He gets to torture a guy with white powder and beat someone foolish enough to talk back but that’s about it. He also has a family that pops up from time to time, though they might as well be inanimate parts of the scenery for all they’re given to do.
More thought could have developed The Connection into an emotionally engaging as well as absorbing thriller. Instead, a two hour plus running time tries patience in the second half as the plot jump starts forward every time Michel overcomes a setback before lapsing back into incomplete personal dynamics. It’s hard to care what happens to any of the players, minor or major, but this stylish film certainly throws in plenty of excitement in the moment, fleeting as it ultimately proves to be.