An epic crime drama, searing and tumultuous, The Connection burned a hole in me.
Originally titled La French, the movie functions as both an unofficial sequel to William Friedkin’s The French Connection and an unofficial reboot of John Frankenheimer’s French Connection II. All three movies draw from the characters and events depicted in Robin Moore’s utterly fascinating book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy, first published in 1969, but each extrapolates its own fictional twists and narrative turns onto a fact-based foundation.
Director Cédric Jimenez, who also wrote the screenplay with Audrey Diwan, begins his story in Marseille, France, in 1975, as drug lord Tany Zampa (Gilles Lellouche) is at the height of his powers. Rising police leader Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) is brought to Marseille with the goal of bringing down Zampa, but official corruption and the vast and vicious network that the criminal has built are formidable obstacles for the very driven Michel.
The Connection is a drama of cumulative power that plays out slowly yet deliberately. Michel must overcome one challenge after another, his investigation lasting years as he wins small victories that punch tiny holes in Zampa’s criminal empire. Each man is shown in counterpoint as he leads his organization, Michel battling with his superiors and Zampa dealing with the fall-out that comes when his empire begins to crumble.
As the years pass, Michel goes ever further over the legal line in his desperation to bring down Zampa. Michel has seen the toll paid by his colleagues and by the public at large because of the drugs and the deaths that they bring. Yet he never has an “aha” moment, pausing to wonder whether his investigation is really “worth” the price that he and his family must pay; all he can do is his job as he sees it.
For his part, Zampa becomes increasingly frustrated as things start to go sour, yet he never takes it out on his loyal, loving family. There is no question of going “straight” or retiring; he, too, is compelled to do what he does as “best” (i.e. the most ruthless way) he can.
It’s a fascinating journey, a reminder that criminal investigations take years, and that they seldom end with a triumphant fist in the air that most similar movies portray. Perhaps that’s why The Connection has such a strong resemblance to the films directed by Friedkin and Frankenheimer; Jimenez knows that hollow victories are never true triumphs.