While it would seem ill advised for any filmmaker to tackle anything resembling an incarnation of the classic 1971 film The French Connection, though director Cedric Jimenez has wisely chosen not so much to go for a carbon copy as he simply takes that framework and turns it into a French homage to a film that many consider to be the penultimate crime epic.
We learned from his Oscar-winning performance in Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist that French actor Jean Dujardin simply oozes the charm. Most American audiences haven't seen Dujardin as he is here - a driven, earnest magistrate hellbent on taking down the heroin trade in 1970s Marseilles. Dujardin plays real life magistrate Pierre Michel, whose hardnosed stereotype has been brought to life in any number of crime thrillers over the years yet who is brought impressively to life by Dujardin even if he never really does completely abandon all the tics and looks that have turned him into quite the charmer over the years. Dujardin does a nice job of ever so slightly humanizing Michel, an incorruptible cop but one with enough of a crime-solving drive that the word "incorruptible" has some fluidity to it.
The primary target for Michel is Gaetan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), a seemingly untouchable mob boss whose reach into Marseilles is far deeper than the initially naive Michel realizes. Michel is surprisingly successful, taking down Zampa's henchmen and closing the circle around him to such a degree that Michel's own world starts to be impacted including his wife (Celine Sallette) and his children.
The Connection works largely on the strength of its co-leading performances from Dujardin and Lellouche, though at least part of this is due to how Jimenez and co-writer Audrey Diwan have paid attention to detail and emphasized the more procedural aspects of everything that unfolds. It's a surprising choice, but it works and it helps to separate the film from its, unsurprisingly, vastly superior original.
There are other times when The Connection just plain falls flat. The scenes between Dujardin and Sallette as husband-and-wife are bland and lifeless, while Jimenez makes a point of letting us know this is 1970s Marseilles yet never really does that much to create the look or feeling of the 1970s. The Connection is most of all hindered by a feeling of "been there, seen that" that never quite leaves the film no matter how terrific Dujardin is and no matter how beautifully Lellouche manages to create a mobster who most of the time seems like just one of the guys.
Despite being bogged down by cliche's, The Connection is worth it almost solely on the basis of watching Dujardin and Sallette constantly trying to one-up each other and control the worlds in which they live. This may be the film that makes America realize just how terrificDujardin was in The Artist and that he really is a pretty darn fine actor after all.
The Connection is currently on a limited nationwide run with indie distributor Drafthouse Films and opens in Indianapolis at the Landmark Keystone Arts on May 29th.