'The Connection' ('La French'): Toronto Review

The Connection
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
An exciting, epic policier with whiffs of both its American cousin and Scorsese

Jean Dujardin and Gilles Lellouche face off in another take on "The French Connection"

The vast series of drug-smuggling operations loosely referred to as "The French Connection," spanning multiple continents and with roots as far back as the Thirties, surely holds enough drama for a dozen crime films that never overlap. So moviegoers should be far from surprised to find no mention of the New York cop who inspired Gene Hackman's "Popeye" Doyle in Cedric Jimenez's The Connection, a Gallic take on the topic that doesn't even start its narrative until years after William Friedkin's The French Connection hit cinemas. Beginning in 1975, it pits Jean Dujardin and Gilles Lellouche against each other as a real-life Marseille judge and an elusive kingpin, distilling actual events into a procedural epic whose complicated narrative is propelled by visceral action sequences and an unusually thrilling soundtrack. The big-budget film should be a hit in its native land, while considerable theatrical appeal in English-language territories is boosted by both its art house-approved cast and the thematic tie-in to Friedkin's evergreen cop film.

Dujardin's Pierre Michel is a juvenile-court magistrate whose dedication has just gotten him promoted to oversee organized crime investigations; having become close to youths suffering from heroin addiction, he's keen to help build a case against "La French." Gaetano Zampa (Lellouche) is the untouchable head of the Marseille smuggling scene, a man whose name lower-tier criminals won't even speak. A sequence zippily assembled by editor Sophie Reine introduces us to the octopus-like organization he runs. But detectives can't pin anything on him until Michel gets a tip from a junkie he befriended in his last position. Quickly, the octopus comes to learn there's a tentacle-trimmer in town.

Michel grows impatient with inch-by-inch investigations when his friend overdoses, and a crackling montage finds him now bending the law to pursue his cases — not violently, as Popeye Doyle would, but with smart maneuvers and a very-dry-wit flair that suits Dujardin well. On the other side of the law, Lellouche offers a more conventional, if restrained, crimelord characterization, his tight expression changing so little he seems to be wearing a handsome-gangster mask.

Zampa's nightclub milieu affords us a glimpse of burgeoning disco culture, though here and elsewhere the film's excellently curated pop songs steer away from the artists associated with that era. (Blondie's "Call Me" is an exception.) Both these songs and Guillaume Roussel's score contribute greatly to the level of excitement, and are invigorating without being as idiosyncratic or ostentatious as the song choices of Scorsese or Tarantino. (The presence of a cover of the Sonny Bono-penned "Bang Bang," a different version of which was memorably featured in Kill Bill, feels like a tip of the hat to the latter director.)

The pursuit of Zampa is made more interesting both by internecine fighting among his generals and by the eventual revelation of police corruption. Obstruction by the "Corsican Cops," we find, has been keeping Michel from making more progress, and he is eventually removed from the Zampa investigation by powerful figures tied to the smugglers. An obligatory-feeling but still emotional sequence depicts Michel's wife leaving him, sure that his obsession with all this will eventually cause their two daughters to become orphans.

Though its action doesn't seem to stretch out over six years — our nearly mirror-image adversaries don't seem to age a day, despite the stress — the tale's final chapter takes place in 1981, after Francois Mitterrand is elected president and makes the mayor of Marseille his new minister of the interior. Only now does Lellouche's performance betray anything like fear, and for good reason: Getting help from the U.S. DEA (his contact there was named John Cusack) and allowed to assemble a special, secret team of clean cops, Michel now seems destined to get his man.

Excellent handheld lensing by Laurent Tangy helps make the film look like the work of a much more experienced director than Jimenez, whose sole previous feature was the jointly directed Aux Yeux de Tous. Perhaps next they can leap back in time, going to Turkey to see how opium producers created the supply that got this whole illicit trade route started.

Production company: Legende Cinema
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Celine Sallette, Benoit Magimel
Director: Cedric Jimenez
Screenwriters: Cedric Jimenez, Audrey Diwan
Producer: Ilan Goldman
Director of photography: Laurent Tangy
Production designer: Jean-Philippe Moreaux
Editor: Sophie Reine
Music: Guillaume Roussel

No rating, 135 minutes