More than four decades after “The French Connection” scored multiple Academy Awards with a fictionalized account of a transatlantic drug ring, a French drama about fighting narcotics traffickers in the 1970s is making its way to the United States. “The Connection” is loosely based on the true story of a judge in Marseille who became obsessed with taking down a heroin kingpin.
Oscar winner Jean Dujardin plays the judge, Pierre Michel, and Gilles Lellouche takes the role of the mob boss, Tany Zampa. Both are tremendous, which is key considering “The Connection” is less about car chases and flying bullets than its American counterpart was. This version is a character study of two men on opposite sides of the law.
As the movie begins, Pierre, a juvenile magistrate, has just been promoted to work on organized crime cases. His job is to do something about the bloodbath taking place in Marseille, where the drug wars have led to shootings on busy streets in broad daylight. Heroin is a lucrative business and, while the police know who the major players are, the baddest of the bad guys manage to keep their noses clean and their lab locations a secret.
As one character describes it, Tany’s operation is like an octopus. His brutish employees force big casinos and clubs to fork over cash for “protection,” and that money is used to bribe whomever it takes — police officers, political officials — to keep business running smoothly. To get to the boss, Pierre will have to dismantle an entire network.
Tany, a Naples transplant, is quietly terrifying as he directs his henchmen, designating whom to kill and whom to spare. But he and Pierre have their similarities. They swim for exercise and read to their kids, they spend evenings with close friends and make concessions for their wives. And though Pierre is clearly the one to root for, he is hardly perfect. The judge is willing to bend the rules to get what he wants, and his obsessive tendencies in dealing with the drug case aren’t so different from the gambling addiction he swears is behind him.
Director Cédric Jimenez, who wrote the movie with Audrey Diwan, has created a slow burn of a movie. The action is intermittent, but a steady tension keeps things interesting. And the movie has a perfectly retro feel with red-tinged club scenes, wardrobes of brown plaid, mirrors everywhere and an evocative soundtrack including Blondie and “Bang Bang.”
In truth, “The Connection” isn’t all that different from a lot of police procedurals that have come before, but there’s something about this particular gritty true-crime story that still fascinates all these years later.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains strong language, drug use, violence and brief nudity. In French with subtitles. 135 minutes.