The drug operation called The French Connection, which transported heroin from Marseilles to New York, was famously treated from the American side by William Friedkin in his 1971 urban action classic. When John Frankenheimer attempted a follow-up from the European side in 1975, the result was far less impressive. Now Carlos Jimenez tries again with “The Connection,” an epic-length depiction of the struggle between the head of the Marseilles mob and a principled police magistrate determined to bring his operation down. It’s a solid, respectable police procedural, but lacking in the kinetic excitement that would set it apart from other films (and television programs) of the type.
The picture opens with the admonition that it’s “loosely based” on the actual events, and when such an adverb is used, you can be certain it’s pretty apt. The gangster head, played by Gilles Lellouche, is Gaetan “Tany” Zampa, of Neapolitan extraction; he’s a teetotaler and family man, but also a volatile and brutal fellow who doesn’t hesitate to order hits and threaten his underlings. He runs, through a series of intermediaries, the business that involves smuggles heroin into Europe from Turkey, processes it in clandestine labs, and then smuggles it out of the country to the U.S. by hiding it in export goods and then selling it to the American mafia.
The Marseilles police have been ineffectual in combating Tany’s gang, not just because he’s such a managerial genius but because—as we’ll later learn—he’s in league with corrupt cops and politicians. But Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin), an honest judge—in French legal terms, the magistrate who builds a case against a defendant—is transferred to the organized crime unit from a stint in juvenile court, and he shakes up the squad and becomes obsessed with bringing Zampa down. His efforts cause rifts with establishment authorities reluctant to disturb the status quo (often because they’re on the take and sabotage his efforts) and internal disputes among the mobsters, some of whom begin to challenge Zampa’s rule.
Eventually Michel’s devotion to building his case threatens his job and his family, and he’s forced to back off. But a few years later a new French administration brings him back to the fight, and this time he’s able to assemble a crack squad and capture a major player in the operation who, if he can be persuaded to testify, could bring Zampa down. Zampa’s associates ultimately decide on a plan that will save their business, but abandon him to the law in the process, and the film closes with a heavy dose of the cynical view that as much as things might change, they remain essentially the same.
As a simple procedural, “The Connection” works reasonably well, though American audiences might need a mini-course in the French judicial system to understand the role of judges or magistrates within it. (It’s based on Roman law rather than English common law, of course, and impartiality is not part of it.) In the persons of Dujardin and Lellouche, moreover, it has two able actors whose face-off against one another is quite effective (a meeting between the two on an isolated mountain road has some of the same frisson that marked the famous scene between De Niro and Pacino in Michael Mann’s “Heat”). The supporting cast includes plenty of good character actors as cops, politicians, judicial officials and crooks. And Celine Sallette and Melanie Doutey each have their moments as the adversaries’ wives, who try to be supportive but find their lives wrecked by their husbands’ activities.
And yet in the end the film comes across as rather ordinary. It tells the story clearly, thanks to the editing of Sophie Reine, the cinematography of Laurent Tangy creates a sense of place and an atmosphere of quiet foreboding. In the last analysis, however, one comes out feeling that you’ve seen all this before. Simply put, Jimenez hasn’t found a way to tell the story in a particularly distinctive or compelling way.
“The Connection” is, therefore, well-crafted but ultimately unremarkable. It concerns the same criminal enterprise as “The French Connection,” but it’s not in the same league as Friedkin’s film.