Skip to main content

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #150: The French Connection

For a realistic look at police work in the United States nowadays you should look no further than HBO’s The Wire. In the 1970’s TV was not what it is today and movies was where directors like William Friedkin got to show the state of the never-ending war on drugs. In The French Connection (1971) Friedkin illustrates what life is for two hard working narcotics detective trying to take down a major drug operation that reaches all the way to southern France. It offers a realistic look at a very difficult investigation, but it also has one hell of a car chase.

The car chase was major reason why I decide to add The French Connection to my ever-growing collection of movies when I spotted it at HMV about ten years ago. Plus, it was one of those two for $20 deals so why not get a classic? Having grown up in the 90s my idea of a cop movie was the Lethal Weapon series in which for every interrogation there are five shootouts and as many car chases. Consequently I found Friedkin’s movie to be a bit slow upon first viewing, but I grew to appreciate it for its craftsmanship and performances. The 1975 sequel by John Frankenheimer is not as well regarded, but it is definitely worth watching if only to see the change of location from the streets of New York to sunny Marseille.

Based on a real life case, the film stars Gene Hackman in one of his best roles as Popeye Doyle, a hard living New York cop with his fair share of flaws, such unapologetic racism. Along with his partner Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) he uncovers a drug operation run by a rich French criminal (Fernando Rey). When they discover their prey is a French citizen the two New York cops do the most American thing and label him Frog One. As a French Canadian, I find that only mildly offensive.

The thing about Frog One, real name Alain Charnier, is that he is no two-bit criminal from the streets. He knows the cops are onto him and he is good at avoiding surveillance. When Popeye starts following Charnier into the subway he keeps getting on and off the train until Popeye can’t keep track and waves at him as the train leaves the station. Even more infuriating is a sequence when Popeye is keeping an eye on the criminal mastermind from across the street while Charnier is eating at a fancy restaurant. I can't think of a better illustration of the disparity between cops and criminals than the image of Popeye trying to keep his hands warm and spitting out a horrible cup of coffee while the drug kingpin is comfortably eating an expensive meal and sipping wine.

Regardless of how much his job sucks, Popeye relentlessly chases his prey to the point that he becomes a danger for anyone in his way. When one of Charnier’s henchmen tries to take out Popeye and misses, Popeye gives chase and the killer highjacks an elevated train to make his escape. To catch up Popeye commandeers a car and tries to drive as fast as the train, at the risk of hitting other cars, drivers, and pedestrians. To give viewers an idea of how dangerous this is, there is p.o.v shot of Doyle’s car as it races through traffic and almost hit a baby stroller. It is of course not as impressive as the average car chase in the latest Fast and Furious movies, but as far as realistic and breathtaking chases go it still stands the test of time.

Crazy chase aside, The French Connection remains one of the most realistic interpretations of how police work is accomplished. Popeye and Buddy get their job done by doing hours of patient observation, listening in on the criminals through wiretaps, and getting information from informants. Since the movie is based on a decades old real life case it is no spoiler to say they eventually bust the drug ring, but anybody who watches the news will know that in the long run it did not make that much of a difference. There is still a lot of money to be made by criminals like Charnier selling illegal drugs, and they still get to live like rich men while the cops are drinking lousy coffee.


If there is a silver lining to this it’s that the cops get to be portrayed as hard working guys by Academy Award winning actors and the audience get to have a great movie based on one of their greatest case.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #316: Trainspotting

In the 1990s Hollywood directors were the kings of cinema, whether it was for big summer blockbusters or smaller independent films. Guys like James Cameron or Michael Bay would blow up the screens while Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino put the emphasis on snappy dialogue that created relatable characters for the moviegoers. Then in 1996, as if to scream “we can do this too,” Danny Boyle released Trainspotting in the United Kingdom.
Based on a novel by Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh, the movie took the world by storm despite having no explosions, a cast of actors who were relatively unknown and a budget that today could barely pay for the catering of a Transformers movie. Furthermore this is not the story of young people going to college to enter a life full of promise, but about young heroine addicts meandering through the streets of Edinburgh. Despite introducing these characters during an energetic montage set to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge in …

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #364: Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers (1994) is not so much a movie as an American nightmare come to life. Loosely based on a story by Quentin Tarantino, starring some of the wildest actors in Hollywood at the time, and boasting a level of violence that unfortunately inspired copycat crimes, it is the textbook definition of controversial. In all fairness there are important messages amidst all the violent mayhem, but director Oliver Stone throws so much content at the screen that these messages can sometimes get lost in the carnage.
Even though the movie came out more than two decades ago it still has a legendary status, which I learned about while reading a chapter in a book about Tarantino’s career. The book, Quintessential Tarantino, contained a lot of interesting facts about the making of the movie and also spoiled the ending, but reading a few words that describe a killing spree is very different than seeing it portrayed on screen. A few years ago the director’s cut became available on Netflix, wh…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #64: Oldboy

One thing I have noticed from the few Korean films I have seen so far is that Korean cinema really doesn’t hold back. One of that country’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful movie is Oldboy (2003), which has amazing performances, beautifully choreographed fight scenes and a story filled with many twists and turns. It also has plenty of scenes that will make you squirm whether because of graphic violence, very disturbing revelation, or because you prefer your calamari fried instead of alive.
This was one of the last movies I rented from a video store in the pre-Netflix days in early 2009. By then its reputation had grown in the west especially since on top of the many awards it had won it had also earned high praise from Quentin Tarantino who knows a thing or two about violent and entertaining movies. On paper Oldboy’s plot sounds like something right up his alley: a man is seemingly wronged by an adversary and that man then seeks bloody retribution. However while T…