What’s so thrilling and unexpected about John Frankenheimer’s underrated The French Connection II is that at no point did the filmmaker or anyone else on his team try to totally mimic the success of the Oscar-winning original. William Friedkin’s The French Connection is certainly a masterpiece of American cinema, one of the only “action movies” to win Best Picture with the Academy, and a film that holds up staggeringly well because of how ahead of the curve Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman were with their mise-en-scene and the gritty realism of the fact based story, to say nothing of the gripping performances from Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. In The French Connection II, Frankenheimer, himself no slouch to great action adventure movies (The Train, Ronin, Black Sunday, 99 and 44/100% Dead, Grand Prix), continued on with the same immediate and visceral visual style that Friedkin had pioneered with the first effort, but he opened up the scope of the story, both visually and narratively, setting a majority of the plot in Marseilles, which was only glimpsed in part one. What results is a film that, while never reaching the glorious heights of its predecessor, hits all of its marks with extreme efficiency and toughness, and seems to be a work that’s been relegated to long-forgotten status.
Hackman’s Popeye Doyle and arch nemesis drug kingpin Alain Charnier (the slippery Fernando Rey) were the only two returning cast members from the first installment, and the sequel has Doyle following some leads to France in an effort to track down Charnier and his drug smuggling operation, who memorably escaped capture during the final moments of The French Connection (gotta love that final freeze frame!) Upon arriving in France, Doyle is greeted by inspector Henri Barthélémy (a fiery Bernard Fresson), who in typical fashion, resents Popeye’s distinctly American way of handing police business, with Popeye getting pissed upon realization that visiting foreign police officers on French soil aren’t allowed to carry guns. In classic fish out of water style, Doyle struggles with the, customs, language, and people, and hates having to work with the French police. He ditches them, but is followed and attacked by Charnier’s goons, who then tie him down with restraints, and forcibly inject him with heroin in the hopes that he’ll either cooperate or die. Hackman is in a totally different zone in The French Connection II; he’s unsure of himself and paranoid and not confident, a major departure from his demeanor in the first film. You watch as Doyle is rescued, fights the symptoms of smack withdrawal, and then gets back on his feet to lead one last charge against Charnier, staging a massive gun battle and final chase.
Upon initial release, it seems that most critics were indifferent to Frankenheimer’s film, which feels nothing like the obviously more revered initial installment. The exotic setting set the film apart in tone, and the film’s dark and depressing mid-section with Doyle addicted to horse in the shittiest of environments was probably too unrelentingly nasty for mass audience appeal. Also, the lack of a massive car chase or a truly substantial or genre-busting action sequence probably left some people feeling gipped. But what I think makes The French Connection II worthy of re-assessment is because it took something that worked so well the first time, and instead of being lazy and trying to re-hash those elements, it used the material as a spring board to broaden the overall story and take the Doyle character to edgier, tougher realms. Hackman was fantastic here, never stopping with the full-blown intensity, always providing Doyle with a vital integrity that always made you care, no matter how harsh the character talked or behaved. And it goes without saying that Frankenheimer, ever the reliable craftsman, shot the hell out of the film with his director of photography Claude Renoir, giving it that rough and tumble 70’s aesthetic that we all love so much in present day. Many, many people have seen The French Connection. Not enough people have seen The French Connection II. I’d like that to change.