The French Connection was such a good film that any sequel was bound to pale in comparison. But French Connection 2 is not a bad film – just an inferior sequel. They key to the success of both films however, is Gene Hackman’s portrayal of New York City cop Popeye Doyle – and French Connection 2 sees him on the trail of drug lord, Charnier; AKA: Frog One (Fernando Rey), in Marseilles.
At the end of The French Connection, Frog One slipped away. Here it is explained that he was actually caught, but of the eighty odd police who questioned him, fifty-three of them accepted a bribe, which enabled him to escape back to France.
Doyle is on his trail. Although, what he doesn’t know, is that he has been setup as bait. It is believed that when Charnier sees Doyle, he will react, drawing attention, enabling the local French authorities to move in. And essentially, that is the whole plot of the film. The devil is in the detail though, because much of the story is built upon the relationship between Doyle and his French counterpart Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson). These men don’t really like each other, but there is a grudging respect.
The biggest problem with the film, paradoxically is its strength too – but I’ll talk about its strength in a second. The main problem is the the middle section of the film features a very protracted scene where Popeye Doyle is kidnapped by Charnier and his men, and doped up so much that he becomes depended on it. Then when Doyle is of no further use, he is dumped from a moving vehicle, and the French police pick him up – save his life, and then Barthélémy watches agonizingly on, as he goes cold turkey. This just goes on and on – and as far as the narrative goes – it kills the film dead in the water.
However it must be said – and this is one of the film’s strengths, is that Hackman’s performance as both junky and going cold turkey is amazing. It’s hard to take your eyes off him as he spouts gibberish about baseball, chocolate and cognac. You really feel his need. But ultimately, no matter how good Hackman is, we are talking about an action police thriller – with a style and a template established in The French Connection – so watching Hackman shiver and sweat, rather than shaking down suspects isn’t really in keeping with the tone of the film. The last third reverts to a more traditional action template and that works reasonably well, with nice setpieces in a shipyard, a shootout at the heroin laboratory, and a exhausting chase through the streets of Marseilles.
As I said at the top, I think French Connection 2 is a good film, albeit a very flawed one – and of course, it lives in the shadow of the original, which is a masterpiece of early seventies cinema. But it is still very enjoyable, and delivers enough of the good stuff to override any stodgy patches – and Hackman is brilliant. What more could you ask?