The French Connection review by Matt Fuerst


As I think about a movie like The French Connection I realize how hard it is, at the time of a films release, to fully understand the impact that it will have on the movie industry. While I wasn't around at the time, some reading on film in the 70's here in the States illustrates that The French Connection, along with some foreign influences, really started a cool trend of grittier, less Hollywood type fare we see in the 70's. It really is a cool decade of filmmaking I am growing to enjoy much more as I age. But, on the other hand, the problem with a film like The French Connection, is that 37 years later, it's not as revolutionary as it was in it's day. That spark of "something" different that led to a bevy of Oscar awards and nominations has been lost in time. Does The French Connection still have something to offer a 2009 audience? Or has the changes it introduced been incorporated into our films of today, and already been usurped? Let's take a look.

Our protagonist is a colorful gentleman named Jimmy Doyle, nicknamed Popeye and played by Gene Hackman. Now if you're a Jackass Critic named Matt Fuerst or Tom Blain, the Gene Hackman factor is a huge bonus. Hackman delivers good movies, period. Popeye is a good, tough cop in a tough city (New York City). Popeye and his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Schneider) are coming off a shift when they decide to stop by a bar for a drink. What starts out as a simple nightcap turns into a gut feeling for Popeye, and next thing the officers know they are tailing a gentlemen they think is involved in organized crime and sleeping outside his doorstep in a car.

The French Connection approaches it's storytelling in a unique way, in that we see the two sides of the story, initially miles apart (both thematically and geographically) slowly come together on a collision course. While we are busy watching Popeye and Russo sit on a goon in Brooklyn, we shift gears to Europe. We meet Alain, a European businessman who is apparently expanding a shipping port. This switching of gears is abrupt and really gives the viewer notice that "something different" is happening. There's no obvious connection between Alain and Popeye, but at the same time we know they are on a collision course with each other.

As the story is told, Popeye continues to follow his "gut" feeling, chasing gangster Sal Boca throughout New York in spite of his bosses taking him off the case. Popeye knows something is up, and letting Boca go would haunt him. Screenwriter Ernest Tidyman and director William Friedkin use some neat tricks to give all the characters a lot more depth. For example, an FBI Agent brought in to support Popeye on the Boca case makes mention of Popeye "causing a good cop his life". We immediately begin to get a sense of the backstory of these characters with a simple sentence, without having to resorting to a flashback to tell the entire tale. Popeye is a colorful character, unkempt and disorganized, the job and his pursuit of the bad guys is what keeps him going.

Eventually, both our protagonist and antagonist arrive in New York City and confront each other. Both manage to knowledge each others existence, Popeye desperately wanting to arrest Alain but not being able to, Alain wanting to ditch Popeye and the NYC Police Department but having to finish his illegal deal first. Popeye vs. Alain plays out like a traditional chess match. Each player measures their moves before committing, knowing that each move brings them closer to the endgame. Once the characters meet, about halfway through the film, it begins to take a more traditional track, but the first half of The French Connection contains some very original storytelling. Impatient viewers will feel antsy not knowing what exactly is going on.

Our classic good versus evil battle reaches a conclusion that is both classic and unsatisfying at the same time. Popeye's manic obsession with Alain causes him to overstep his bounds, but even death won't stop Popeye. The ending of the film, which is based on a true story by the way, will certainly have you talking.

So, the question posed in the introductory paragraph still stands. Can a classic film such as The French Connection still satisfy today's audiences? I think the answer is a qualified yes. While The French Connection drew in large, diverse crowds in it's opening, I don't think a general audience will enjoy it today as they did then. For fans of crime dramas, noir pieces and/or 70's cinema will enjoy, even cherish The French Connection. However, the pacing, storytelling and documentary-type realism is not as new or groundbreaking today as it was 1971. Most people don't watch a film to appreciate it's contributions to filmmaking, so I can see how The French Connection wouldn't deliver 2 hours of entertainment to a typical 2009 United States family household unit. While I greatly enjoy the flick, I can't in good conscious argue with someone who didn't find it fulfilling.

The Blu Ray presentation of The French Connection really delivers the film exactly as a theatre goer experienced it in 1971. The intentional decision to film the movie in a documentary, gritty style is completely on point here. Friedkin and his cinematographer were very hands on in their making of the film, and Blu Ray really lets you enjoy the beauty of the film. The French Connection is a 2 disc set, the first disc contains 2 commentaries. The first commentary is Friedkin talking about his film. His insights are quite excellent and it's great hearing him talk. The second commentary isn't as fulfilling, as it's more of an free flowing discussion that is pasted into the film, not necessarily completed when the film was rolling. The second disc contains both deleted scenes and several documentary pieces on the film. Thankfully, much of this material is presented in a High Def stream. Now, some of the source material, for the deleted scenes for example, are not of the best quality. But I appreciate that the HD capabilities of the disc are used as much as possible. Many Blu Ray extras thus far have been simple "copy and paste" jobs from the existing DVD releases.

8 out of 10 Jackasses
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