The lesser-known but no less interesting Euro side of “The French Connection” story finally gets its due in Cedric Jimenez’s “The Connection” (aka “La French”), a meaty, export-ready true-crime saga — and relatively safe bet for U.S. distrib Drafthouse Films — that manages to be both more upbeat and more cynical than William Friedkin’s loosely fictionalized policier. Few would have thought the latter point possible, given the gritty original’s unresolved ending and the grim sequel it inspired. Still, “The Connection” can’t hold a candle to that 1976 classic as Jimenez adopts a vintage-kitsch sensibility, taking a disappointingly generic approach to his hard-to-follow narrative.
Already booking sprocket operas left and right since its Toronto Film Festival bow, “The Connection” not only sounds good on paper, but also boasts a lead turn from a suitably retro-looking Jean Dujardin, dudded out in sideburns and polyester suits for the role. Dujardin plays relentlessly dedicated magistrate Pierre Michel, reassigned from Metz to the southern port city of Marseille, where a bad-news mafia honcho named Gaetan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche) has the entire legal system cowering in fear.
Even the French don’t necessarily know the details of how Michel finally cracked the ruthless international drug syndicate responsible for pumping Gotham full of heroin in the mid-’70s. This largely untold story will be a big selling point for Gallic auds, who also have reason to be proud that such a high-profile, Hollywood-caliber pic has sprung from their local film industry. That’s not meant to sound patronizing, since France regularly delivers comedies and cop movies with production values on par with U.S. fare (at a fraction of the budget), but “The Connection” feels like a calculated attempt to do at home what the Americans set the bar for abroad: a robust period piece, bursting at the seams with details and characters that virtually demand multiple viewings to take in.
Dramatically speaking, however, the package proves more attractive than its contents, a shortcoming that reveals itself from the moment Dujardin’s character arrives in Marseille. That’s Jimenez’s make-or-break chance to establish the alleged stranglehold Zampa has on the city, and yet the quick succession of generic examples that follows is strictly routine: a couple of public executions, a drive-by shooting, pedestrians screaming in alarm while Zampa’s goons go unchecked.
The world has seen too many mobster movies at this point for violence alone to impress, and Jimenez too often delivers his thrills in tidy little clusters, too meager to justify the parched, obligatory stretches in between. The helmer seems determined to humanize both Michel’s and Zampa’s characters for reasons that will become clear in the film’s final moments — though neither of their outcomes packs the desired emotional heft.
Collaborating again with “Aux yeux de tous” co-writer Audrey Diwan, Jimenez (who grew up in Marseille while all of this was happening) palpably re-creates the era’s nervous atmosphere, though not quite to the degree David Fincher did in “Zodiac” or Spike Lee in “Summer of Sam,” where auds were made to feel every bit as tense as the locals must have during the crime wave in question. But the reconstruction feels more artificial in its strictly visual aspects: Apart from the intimidating, sun-bleached impression that Zampa and his gang feel no pressure to hide their actions, practicing evil in the full light of day, the movie’s period details — from the vintage cars to the Vera Neumann bedsheets — feel like a form of cheap ’70s veneer.
On the other hand, Dujardin has always felt like a man from another era, and the same classic appeal that served him well in “The Artist” and the “OSS 117” series helps to place him convincingly at the center of a mid-’70s drug sting. His character has been thrust deep into the middle of compromised system, where the corruption goes all the way to the top (an employee in the mayor’s office has ties to Zampa’s gang, and most of the police force appear to be on his payroll) and the best hope of bringing things down involves pitting rivals (like the ambitious “Crazy Horse,” played by Benoit Magimel) against one another.
Referencing Michel’s dark past as a gambling addict, the pic implies that his new obsession is his highest-stakes bet yet — one in which he puts his actual life on the line. That dynamic shifts the focus away from the organized-crime action toward a series of all-too-familiar domestic scenes, as Michel and his duly concerned wife (Celine Sallette, a better actress than the film gives her occasion to demonstrate) fret about whether his job could literally be the death of him.
Jimenez similarly attempts to de-mythologize Zampa, serving up a number of tedious family-matters scenes for him as well — though auds will no doubt get restless during the opening of the massive, money-losing Krypton club (to keep his own wife happy) or watching Zampa’s various home-life activities (riding his exercise bike, swimming in his pool, reading to his son) into which bad news inevitably creeps.
Such details feel awfully low-key for auds schooled on Scorsese and “The Sopranos,” and while subtlety can work for macho character portraits (as it has in “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”), the genre all but demands grand operatics. Instead, “The Connection” bogs down in procedure: endless montages of Michel implementing fresh tactics, many of them just beyond the law — dispensing blank search warrants, arresting Zampa’s small fry for minor infractions just to rattle his organization — provoke boredom instead of excitement. (That said, while the film plays fests, Jimenez continues to tinker in the editing room, planning to deliver a tighter cut for theatrical distribution.)
More than anything, we crave a direct confrontation between these two titans, Dujardin and Lellouche, together onscreen for the first time since 2010’s “Little White Lies” (establishing a pattern in which Dujardin might want to refrain from riding motorcycles). Hardly even co-stars in that film, they share just a whisker more screen time here, facing off in an invented scene where the rivals stare one another down on a cliff overlooking the ocean, as if competing to see who has the squarest jaw.
In the end, only one of them can rule the city, and the movie valiantly tries — but ultimately falls short — for profundity in the final reel as events take a melancholy turn. The era’s pop music falls silent, time seems to slow to a standstill, and Max Richter’s haunting “On the Nature of Daylight” accompanies a moment of terrible inevitability in the life of a true French cowboy. At last Popeye Doyle’s fans will see, in the international fight against heroin, the heroes weren’t exclusively American.