Thursday, March 12, 2009
A Lot Of Water
William Friedkin’s THE FRENCH CONNECTION only seems to get better as the years pass. In contrast John Frankenheimer’s less well-known 1975 followup, FRENCH CONNECTION II, seems pretty much the same. This is not a slam—it’s a good film, very taut, very 70s, but as much as Frankenheimer brought his own expertise (which I’m admittedly a huge fan of) it doesn’t seem to gain as time goes on, maybe because some of it goes a little slack or maybe because of the unavoidable issue that the film didn’t really need to exist to begin with. It’s still pretty damn good at times and considering there may be some people out there who don’t even know it exists they might even be surprised by how genuinely effective some of it is.
Some time after the events of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) arrives in Marseilles attempting to track down Charnier (Fernando Rey) who has presumably proved elusive since getting away at the end of the first film. What Doyle doesn’t know is that both the New York and Marseilles police are actually using him as bait in an attempt to bring Charnier out into the open. Though local cop Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson) has Doyle constantly followed, thing don’t quite go as planned when Charnier, aware his nemesis has shown up, has him captured. When Popeye refuses to answer any of his questions, Charnier has him repeatedly injected with heroin over a long period of time. When Charnier finally believes that Doyle has no useful information, he has him dumped in front of the police station where, fully hooked, he has to go through the agonizing process of cold turkey with little but revenge on his mind.
The setup feels slightly contrived and the way Popeye Doyle just shows up by himself frankly comes off more like something that would happen in a sequel to a big movie than it would in real life—in the aftermath of the real case, attempts to extradite the French Connection never succeeded. Popeye Doyle also came off as so much of his environment in the original that it’s almost hard to believe that he would ever leave the five boroughs willingly (Of course, Charnier himself declares, “Wine will travel. It is people who have difficulty.”) However, the film proceeds almost as if it’s both fully aware and determined to defy this contrivance. In spite of being a direct continuation of the story of the Friedkin film, with various asides like a callback to “pick your feet in Poughkeepsie”, it’s probably best to look at FRENCH CONNECTION II as a stand-alone mid-70s crime film, where Hackman just happens to be appearing as a character he’s played before. Ultimately what’s most interesting about it is that it really does manage to feel like both an American and a French film at the same time and seems to use this battle of styles to its advantage. This is no doubt an influence of director Frankenheimer who was living over in France at this point and may have experienced some of this feeling of being caught between two worlds (even the scenes of Charnier living his life of luxury feel like something Frankenheimer has first-hand knowledge of). His basic aesthetic isn’t too different from Friedkin’s approach but even with certain scenes very obviously shot out among people unaware that there’s a camera nearby, like a lot of the terrific footage of Hackman wandering around Marseilles it feels a little more staged like a normal movie this time, it still is a very effective one with some of the most memorable sequences having little to do with the plot—they’re bits like Hackman playing scenes with actors who obviously speak little or no English and each person is skilled enough to use that to their advantage. When he tries to order a drink without knowing how to say it (“Jack Daniels?” “Jackie?”) his interplay with the bartender is a particularly good bit. What’s most surprising is how, for the most part, the film makes little or no attempt to top the classic action scenes of the original film. That it doesn’t offer its own car chase is not just brave, it’s downright perverse, forcing us to wait for the action that we’re expecting. As good as Hackman is and as strong as the mid-70s French atmosphere holds, FRENCH CONNECTION II lets the tension dissipate a little too often. Friedkin’s film, at 104 minutes, feels cut to the bone—maybe beyond the bone—and it never lets up for a second. FRENCH CONNECTION II is 119 minutes and frankly doesn’t feel like it contains enough plot to warrant that running time. For whatever reason, the story has a feel of being made up as it goes along, something I don’t entirely mean in a good way.
Doyle’s forced addiction and subsequent withdrawal is harrowing in all the right ways but really does go on too long, culminating in a long setpiece between Hackman and Fresson where Doyle tells about his past when he tried out for the Yankees. It’s an interesting scene in the sense that it’s about two people who are genuinely trying to communicate with each other but due to language and cultural barriers they can’t quite get there. But it comes off as a little too much of a showcase for Hackman who, when you think about it, won an Oscar for playing this character in a film that contained no such scenes. For that matter, from when Popeye begins to be on the move again (in a cool jump-cut montage I always look forward to, propelled by Don Ellis’s music) and then begins his rampage of revenge (“Bring some water. A lot of it.”) the movie should never let up for a second but unfortunately it does, particularly with a boatyard shootout scene that goes on way too long. The foot chase climax is pretty terrific though, and the way Frankenheimer assembles the pieces together it feels like it plays as part of the flow of things as opposed to existing for the sake of its own setpiece. It also culminates in one of the absolute great “BOOM. MOVIE’S OVER.” endings of the seventies that makes it feel extremely satisfying in the end, but it just feels like there could have been a little bit of tightening. What we get out of that foot chase is one of the most memorable things in the movie—Popeye Doyle in pain, exhausted, seemingly pushed as far as he can go, but still moving driven by nothing other than his own obsession (a theme that feels very much like Frankenheimer) and determined to finish things once and for all. It would be nice if the whole movie could live up to these moments but what’s there is still pretty good anyway.
There are a variety of interesting French actors in bit roles in addition to that bartender, but this is very much Hackman’s show. The movie may not be as good as the original but everything about him feels more confident onscreen than he was the first time he played Popeye Doyle and something about this makes me think that he had an easier time working with Frankenheimer as well. If I sould like I’m criticizing him when I say that the middle seems too much like a showcase well, there are certainly many things worse than watching this actor deliver a long monologue. One drawback is that Roy Scheider doesn’t reprise his role as Cloudy Russo (working on THE SEVEN UPS? Actually at this point in time he was probably on JAWS). Considering the plot it makes sense to have Doyle all alone in the film but Scheider and his chemistry with Hackman is still missed. Fernando Rey delivers his smarmy elegance in excellent fashion—the shot in the restaurant where he almost expects Popeye Doyle to appear at his table is a very accomplished bit of silent, simple screen acting. Bernard Fresson is very good, particularly as he tries to figure out how to help Doyle during his cold turkey sessions and familiar face Ed Lauter, someone who also seems appropriately out of place in a French setting, plays a Washington contact for Charnier in a few scenes.
Jazz musician Don Ellis, who provided the harsh, dissonant sounds of the original, provides the score for this one as well and, just like the movie, feels a little more conventional—some of the main title even sounds like it’s actually approaching a melody, almost as if it’s announcing Popeye Doyle in his own James Bond-type adventure. But since it’s cool 70s action music this is hardly a bad thing and I always love—LOVE—that pounding percussion which appears when Doyle slams down the receiver on that pay phone and storms toward the hotel with a certain canister in hand always makes me want to stand up and cheer the moment. It has its flaws, but it also has its showcase for Hackman, Frankenheimer using his camera to explore Marseilles and the dynamite climax (including, I’ll say it again, THAT ENDING) and while FRENCH CONNECTION II’s story may be a little thin, the energy it leaves you with feels like more than enough.