For a director, one of the toughest scenarios youd have to face as a serious film maker would be to take the helm of a sequel to an already successful franchise. Rather than getting to start from scratch and put your own signature on a project from the get go, you instead have to try and weave your vision onto the cinematic language of the movie that came before it. This had to be an especially monumental task when it came to directing a sequel to the 1971 Oscar winner for Best Picture, The French Connection, even if the man behind the camera for the follow-up was legendary director John Frankenheimer, the man responsible for such classics as The Manchurian Candidate.
William Friedkins original film was one of the signature Cop movies of the 1970s, and its gritty style was a groundbreaking achievement at the time, so it was probably the correct move for Frankenheimer not to try and top Friedkin on those levels. Instead the director chose to go internally with his movie, concentrating more on the character of Gene Hackmans Popeye Doyle, and presenting the rest of the movie much more conventionally than its predecessor in terms of a visual style. Using Marseilles as a backdrop to the film, Popeye travels to France in order to try and finally bring notorious drug dealer Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) to justice, but in doing so we see this character completely out of his element, and the results are fascinating at times.
In the first film it’s tough to see Doyle as anything but a juggernaut of a character. He imposes his will on all around him, with his determination onscreen culminating in what is regarded by many as the greatest car chase of all time as he stops an assassin at all costs, even putting many bystanders in danger to get the job done. For this second chapter, we see Doyle completely stripped of his power. Having no real authority in France, we see Popeye pushed around by his superiors, his attempts to break free even costing the life of a police informant at one point. Even criminals, who always feared Doyles fists and gun on the streets of New York, treat the officer as a joke; Popeyes threats and interrogation techniques falling by the wayside due to the heavy language barrier.
In Hackmans bravest scenes in this movie, we even see Popeye kidnapped by the man he is sent to bring in, Charnier taking some modicum revenge on the officer by addicting Doyle to heroin in the process. Its amazing to see a character with such ferocity torn down to his foundations, begging for a fix and even giving in to questioning before being tossed back to the cops as a complete disgrace. Hackman apparently studied drug addicts intently, and his performance comes off as genuine, especially during Doyles road to recovery in detox. Unfortunately, as well as these sequences are pulled off, they cant help but weigh down the movies pacing, and the film never really kick-starts again until its final third.
While in no way is this movie a failure, and indeed does manage to be fascinating at times, the French Connection II never really even gets in the ballpark of its award-winning predecessor. Frankenheimer and Cinematographer Claude Renoir shoot a visually compelling film, with plenty of hand-held work that is reminiscent of the original without really aping it, and the visual landscape of Marseilles makes for an interesting pallet, but the movie simply cant break free from the shadow of The French Connections greatness. Still this is a solid effort, and thankfully, the movies last third still makes for some gripping film making, as Popeye builds himself back up, burning down houses and busting down the doors of scumbags, setting the movie up for its very impressive finale.
Again wanting to be reminiscent of the original but not wanting to straight out copy it, Frankenheimer chooses to put Hackmans character through the ringer in a pretty phenomenal foot chase. Don Ellis again does amazing work with this movies score in this section, as we get a very moody, minimalist use of music, reminiscent of European Horror in some ways, as Popeye tries to close in on Charnier. Running after buses and boats, we even get some first person shots as Doyle pushes himself to the limit to get his quarry, Hackman clearly foregoing any stuntmen for this amazing climax. Jumping over fences, gates, cars and other people, were nearly as out of breath as Popeye is the by time the credits abruptly start to roll.
The French Connection II simply has too many forces acting against it to make it a truly great movie, but this reliable attempt entertains by the sheer force of will of its characters and film makers. Doyle is stripped down and built back up in a mostly terrific arc, and the movies finale is hard to argue with, its just that theres no way this movie is really able to stand on its own without comparison to the original, which is pound for pound a much stronger movie. Like many earnest sequels, French Connection II makes for a good time, but lacks so much of the ingenuity of the movie that came before it to really be anything but an entertaining afterthought.
This is a pretty amazing transfer, with image detail the best Ive ever seen from this movie. Marseilles has never looked more authentic onscreen than it does here, and Frankenheimers visuals come off as strong as ever. The Audio track for this release is also rather superb, and gives Don Ellis score the track it deserves.
Frankenheimer: In Focus – It seems odd that on the disc for a sequel, on a movie that some consider to be a failure, that you would get such an in-depth Featurette on the career of a director who did not create this franchise. It seems even weirder that the Featurette would be as finely detailed as this one is about the directors career, but that is exactly what happens here. This is a very entertaining piece about Frankenheimers career, both as a director and a political activist. Covering everything from his TV career, right up through his final projects, this is a wonderful treat for the Frankenheimer faithful.
Conversation with Gene Hackman – Just like the disc for the first movie, this is a really nice interview with the actor, who goes in-depth about this experience, which he sees as pretty positive.
Commentary from Director John Frankenheimer – This is a pretty fantastic track from the director, who recalls his experiences from beginning to end with this movie, from coming up with the movies original premise through to the pictures release. We get some really nice tidbits, especially during the movies “dry-dock” sequence, in which Popeye and another cop are nearly drown. What I like is how the sequence looks much more harrowing than it really was because of Frankenheimers visual trickery, and he lets us in on how it was all accomplished.
Commentary from Gene Hackman and Producer Robert Rosen – This is a nice track carried over from the original DVD release of the film. Hackman especially has some good bits about what he was trying to do with his character in this picture.
Not groundbreaking, but the French Connection II is a solid sequel with a really nice visual style. While conceptually it works better than in its execution on occasion, this is still an entertaining sequel to the original classic, with Hackman doing some really terrific work. Also, theres some good extras on this disc, especially the Featurette paying homage to an incredibly gifted director. Overall, this is worth a look.
20th Century Fox presents French Connection II. Directed by: John Frankenheimer. Starring: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, and Bernard Fresson. Written by: Alexander Jacobs and Robert Dillon. Running time: 119 Mins. Rating: R. Released on Blu-ray: Feb 24, 2009. Available at Amazon.com