Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Forgotten Movies: Frankenheimer's FRENCH CONNECTION II

NYC’s Film Forum is wrapping up a month long series called “NYC Noir” with a week’s booking for William Friedkin’s THE FRENCH CONNECTION, the much-beloved cop thriller that spawned as many imitators as JAWS or STAR WARS and (along with BULLITT) helped give birth to the modern-day action film. It’s also that rare genre picture to be embraced by critics, audiences, and the motion picture establishment, which awarded it with the Best Picture Oscar back in 1971. Famed for its classic car chase and for making Gene Hackman into a leading man (and for that we are eternally grateful), it’s still a solid film today that I like quite a bit, although a certain amount of its freshness is long gone thanks to countless TV shows and other cop movies. FRENCH CONNECTION had a certain freshness to it back in ’71, mainly because of Friedkin’s documentary-like approach to the material, which has now become something of the norm to telling this kind of story. Like NAKED CITY before it, it’s so famous for bringing something different to the cop movie in ’71, but anyone new to it today would ask, “What’s so original about that?” And there’s another factor that is rarely discussed that I feel needs to be brought up when discussing THE FRENCH CONNECTION’s legacy and that’s John Frankenheimer’s FRENCH CONNECTION II. To be blunt, it’s a better film.

Let me make one thing very clear before we proceed: One of the reasons FRENCH CONNECTION II (currently only available on DVD in a 2-disc set with the original) is a great film is because of THE FRENCH CONNECTION. II is a true sequel in that it is a direct continuation of the first film and obviously couldn’t exist without it. It isn’t just a rehashing of the first film’s story, it’s the climax (as the film’s poster proclaimed), it’s own movie, though it needs that first FRENCH CONNECTION in order for it to make sense. But it quickly establishes its own pace and before you’re halfway through it, your memories of the first film are no longer what’s keeping you there. This is mainly due to John Frankenheimer, and whomever came up with the idea of hiring him to make this film deserves a place up there in movie heaven, because the guy made zero mistakes. Frankenheimer is one of my very favorite directors and FC II is one of my favorites of his films in part because he made FRENCH CONNECTION II “A John Frankenheimer Film” and not a Friedkin wannabe. FC II has its own vibe and it doesn’t waste any time in getting the story up and running. We pick up with Gene Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle as he arrives in Marseille to find Fernando Rey’s Charnier and we get right to it, no need to rehash what happened in the first film or try to establish anything else about this character. We already know him and what he does, so let’s get cracking.

What’s especially interesting about FC II (and please forgive the obnoxious abbreviation, but it’s going to help this whole thing go a hell of a lot faster) is how the entire film is told through Popeye’s point of view, as an outsider in a strange place where he doesn’t speak the language and isn’t especially welcome (although he’s still able to get laid). The first third of FC II seems to be setting up another variation of the first film, yet another game of cat and mouse between Doyle and Charnier on his turf, and then it throws you for a loop that takes this film into a completely unexpected realm. To some, it stops the film cold while for me it’s what gives the film its heart and soul, though I’m reluctant to go into it for the sake of those who’ve never seen the film (though this part of the film is often discussed in detail). So I’ll just say that in these scenes, Hackman simply does the very best work of his career; he brings you through an incredibly rough and powerful experience that is some of the very best screen acting you will ever see. Hackman earned both a Golden Globe and BAFTA nomination for this film and it’s due mainly to these scenes and the guy unquestionably deserved an Oscar nomination for it, if you ask me. If I’m ever lucky enough to meet Gene Hackman, the first words out of my mouth will be “FRENCH CONNECTION II is the best performance you’ve ever given”. When you see this part of the film, you’ll know why.

These scenes are the backbone of the film and what follows is dependent upon their success and Frankenheimer, being no dummy whatsoever, just keeps the camera rolling on Hackman, while Hackman knows to not go overboard with such intensely dramatic material. Because this segment of the film is so incredible, it also provides an emotional resonance for the film’s final third, which brings the action back and, in a sense, brings Frankenheimer back to being the filmmaker he had been in his glory days of the 60s. This is something the first film never had, a reason for being; a need not just for retribution but also to re-establish Doyle’s self-worth, and knowing that Frankenheimer went through some of the same experiences that Doyle goes through, it becomes even more remarkable. With this, Frankenheimer is able to come up with some of the most eye-popping action sequences of his entire career, including a shootout in a boating dock that’s simply amazing and a final foot chase against time that is superbly shot and edited and ends the film on an emotional high note (with kick-ass action) that was missing from the first film. With this, FRENCH CONNECTION II is a career highlight for all concerned and unquestionably one of the all-time great sequels.

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