French Connection II

Director: John Frankenheimer
Screenplay: Alexander Jacobs and Robert Dillon & Laurie Dillon (story by Robert Dillon & Laurie Dillon)
Stars: Gene Hackman (Popeye Doyle), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier), Bernard Fresson (Barthélémy), Philippe Léotard (Jacque), Ed Lauter (General Brian), Charles Millot (Miletto), Jean-Pierre Castaldi (Raoul), Cathleen Nesbitt (The Old Lady), Samantha Llorens (Denise), André Penvern (Bartender)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1975
Country: U.S.
French Connection II Blu-Ray
French Connection IIAt the beginning of John Frankenheimer’s French Connection II, the title card rushes at us from the depths of the screen just as it did in William Friedkin’s unexpectedly gritty, genre-twisting 1971 Oscar-winner, suggesting that the film to come will barrel toward us with the same kind of ruthless intensity as the original. And, while the film bears many similarities to its predecessor--namely the presence of hardened New York City police detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), a plot revolving around the international drug trade, and a rough, handheld aesthetic that, by 1975, had become something of a norm in the police thriller genre--it differs in as many ways.

Most importantly, the setting has been moved from the Big Apple to Marseilles, France, and even though it has just as much grit, garbage, and malfeasance, the European environs produce a radical shift in tone primarily because Popeye Doyle is no longer working on his own turf and is therefore even more of an outsider than ever. In reprising his Oscar-winning role, Gene Hackman has arguably made Doyle even harder than in the original, as his determination to capture the well-heeled drug trader Alain Charnier (Fernando Ray), who eluded him at the end of the first film, has calcified even further into single-minded personal obsession. The very fact that he travels all the way to France just to nail Charnier (which is, frankly, quite ludicrous, but it’s also the most obvious path for the story continuation to take) suggests that his end goal is less about upholding the law than it is about finishing what he started for his own personal satisfaction.

The slippery nature of Doyle’s intensity--what makes him such a good cop makes him a terrible human being--is his most fascinating and troubling characteristic, and Frankenheimer hinges the film on it, exploiting it via the alien and alienating European culture that constantly tries to neuter Doyle (he is not allowed to carry a gun, his desk in the French police precinct is purposefully positioned next to the men’s room, etc.). Doyle is paired with a French police detective named Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), who plays roughly the same role that Roy Scheider’s Buddy “Cloudy” Russo played in the original, which is trying to counterbalance Doyle’s more extreme tendencies with a hint of rationality and control. Of course, Barthélémy also contributes to Doyle’s alienation because the cultural divide inevitably accentuates their personal differences. At times, his cultural alienation threatens to become merely cartoonish, with the film slipping dangerously close to being a one-note depiction of the boorish American abroad. Thankfully, Hackman is good enough that, even when some scenes don’t quite work, they’re followed by something tough and memorable.

Frankenheimer was an interesting choice to helm the film, which was one of the first sequels to declare itself as such with the use of a roman numeral after the title (modeled after Francis Ford Coppola’s successful The Godfather Part II). Frankenheimer had spent many years living in France and therefore knew it the way Friedkin knew New York City (especially the underbelly, which keeps the film from becoming a travelogue). He was also an experienced director with several decades of both live television and film work under his belt, and he excelled at films that had paranoia at their core--the brainwashing exploits of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the Faustian opportunity to relive life in Seconds (1966)--which is palpable in French Connection II. The film’s centerpiece, which is a kind of antithesis to the infamous car chase in the original film, focuses on Doyle’s incapacitation at the hands of Charnier’s minions, who capture him and force him into a heroin addiction, after which they release him. Seeing Doyle, always so forceful and determined, reduced to a desperate junkie is something of a shock, although it is not a shock that he manages to recover enough for an invigorating third act. The scenes with Doyle going off heroin cold turkey while locked in a prison cell affords Hackman some of his best moments, which are so good that we don’t even notice that the film has essentially come to a stand-still.

Like the original, French Connection II ends on an abrupt moment of shock involving gunshots, although Frankenheimer inverts the effect by making it shockingly unambiguous, rather than shockingly ambiguous. It is certainly a cynical ending, even as it delivers a kind of cathartic rush that draws Doyle’s obsessive pursuit of Charnier to a close. Yet, in true ’70s fashion, you can’t help but feel a sense of disillusionment, not just because of the vigilante nature of Doyle’s actions (by the final moments, he has long sense shed any sense of being a police officer), but because the finality of it is so harsh and so sudden that it draws your attention less to the idea of justice served than it does to the brute simplicity of violent retribution and the ultimately cyclical nature of crime and punishment.

French Connection II Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio surround
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese
  • Audio commentary by director John Frankenheimer
  • Audio commentary by star Gene Hackman and producer Robert Rossen
  • Isolated score track
  • “A Conversation With Gene Hackman” featurette
  • “Frankenheimer: In Focus” featurette
  • Still galleries
  • Enhanced for D-Box Motion Control Systems
  • Distributor20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateFebruary 24, 2009

    French Connection II is presented in a new high-definition 1080p transfer encoded on a dual-layer BD 50 disc. Although not as intentionally gritty-looking at William Friedkin’s original, it has its moments of intentional roughness, which are well represented on this disc. Film grain is relatively muted, although the image mainteains an appropriately filmlike appearance. Colors are strong and natural looking for their era, and the film’s darker sequences have good detail and contrast. The original monaural soundtrack (which is also included) has been remixed into a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track that is generally effective. The sequence in the dry dock has some good surround effects, and Don Ellis’s jazzy score gets some nice space to work, although dialogue at times sounds a bit muted. For fans of Ellis’s score, it is available as an isolated track.
    There are two audio commentaries on this Blu-Ray, both of which previously appeared on the French Connection II DVD, which was available only in a box set with The French Connection. The commentary by the late director John Frankenheimer is definitely worth a listen. He provides a great deal of insight into his approach to the film, and he is also unfailingly generous in attributing credit to his colleagues, particularly Gene Hackman, about whom he can’t say enough good things. A second commentary features producer Robert Rossen and actor Gene Hackman (who were recorded separately), although it is primarily Rossen’s show. Hackman also appears in the new 7-minute featurette “A Conversation With Gene Hackman,” in which he discusses reprising his role as Popeye Doyle and his experience working on the film. Another nice new supplement is “Frankenheimer: In Focus,” a 25-minute featurette that explores the great director’s career and includes new interviews with his wife and daughter, director William Friedkin, and many of his long-time collaborators, including editor Tom Rolf, producer Frank Mancuso Jr., and actors Bruce Dern and Ed Lauter. Frankenheimer himself also appears in an interview that looks like it was recorded some time in the late 1960s. Finally, the disc includes two stills galleries (“Wardrobe” and “Storyboards”) and is equipped with information for D-Box Motion Control Systems, which synchronizes your home theater seating with the action on-screen to create real-life motion.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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