French Connection II

Country: United States
Director: John Frankenheimer
Starring: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Bernard Fresson, Cathleen Nesbitt
Music: Don Ellis

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?

French Connection II

Enemy Of The State (1998)

Country: United States
Directed by Tony Scott
Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Jason Robards, Regina King, Lisa Bonet, Jake Busey, Barry Pepper, Ian Hart, Jack Black, Scott Caan, Jason Lee, Seth Green, Tom Sizemore, James LeGros, Gabriel Byrne
Music by Harry Gregson-Williams and Trevor Rabin

Yep, another incursion into the noisy violent world of director Tony Scott. In this instance, his hi-tech visual style is appropriate because the story is about surveillance and privacy. Scott’s penchant for grainy and manipulated images, rapid cuts and ramped footage suit a story of this kind and reflect the technology and equipment utilised by the characters throughout this film.

The film begins with Congressman Phillip Hammersley (Jason Robards) pulling up his car next to a lake. He gets out and so does his dog. This is the Congressman’s recreation time and he regularly comes to the lake to walk and play with his dog. On this occasion though, somebody is waiting for him. This somebody happens to be a gentleman named Reynolds (Jon Voight). Reynolds appears to work at the higher levels of the NSA and controls a team of minions who are prepared to do his bidding and unquestionably carry out his orders. Reynolds has met with Hammersley before and has been trying to persuade him to support a particularly invasive surveillance and security bill. Hammersley refuses to support the bill – he sees it as an invasion of privacy. Reynolds has a contingency plan for this. Along for the ride is Pratt (Barry Pepper), one of Reynolds aforementioned minions. As Hammersley walks away angrily towards his car, Pratt walks behind him and injects a hypodermic needle into his neck. Hammersley dies almost instantly, and Reynolds and Pratt stage an accident. Hammersley’s death is made to look like he had a heart attack.

However there is one glitch in Reynolds murderous plot. On the other side of the lake, a conservationist, in a hide, had set up a remote video camera to watch the ducks on the lake. The camera is activated by a motion sensor and it just happened to be pointed in the right direction at the time when the Congressman was killed.

The conservationist, Zavitz (Jason Lee) also happens to be a compueter nerd and conspiracy theorist. Once he checks the recording, he immediately knows what he has, and also realises that he will be in a lot of danger once Reynolds is onto him. What Zavitz doesn’t realise is that they are already on to him and Reynolds minions are standing outside his apartment door. Zavitz barely has time to duplicate the footage when the minions kick in his door. Zavitz escapes out onto the roof and then down onto the street. Reynolds’ men, utilising the latest hi-tech satellite imaging, track his every movement and pursue him relentlessly.

Meanwhile Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) is doing a spot of Christmas shopping and is attempting to buy a surprise gift for his wife – so he finds himself in a lingerie boutique. At that moment, through the back door, Zavitz enters the boutique and quite literally bumps into Dean. The two mn are old acquaintances as they went to college together. They exchange pleasantries, and Dean hand Zavitz his business card. While they are talking Zavitz secretly slides the ‘murder tape’ into one of Dean’s shopping bags.

With Reynolds’ men closing in, Zavitz is quickly on his way, and once back out on the street he steals a bicycle. The evil minions close in and Zavitz is forced to ride down a highway head on into the on coming traffic. As Zavitz tries to cross over into safety, he is collected by a rapidly moving fire engine and killed. The minions search his body but do not find the recording. Instead they find Dean’s business Card.
Robert Clayton Dean is a highflying lawyer. He lives a good life with his wife, Carla (Regina King) and his son. The only blip on his radar is that he had an extra-marital affair with a girl named Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet). Even though the affair has long since ended, Dean and Banks still keep in contact, as she has a contact named Brill, who supplies specialised and secretive documents that Dean uses from time to time in the course of his job.

Reynolds and his men are a pretty thorough lot, and quickly ascertain that Zavitz must have passed on the recording to Dean, and turn their attention to retrieving the footage from him. This isn’t as easy as it seems, as Dean is unaware that he has the incriminating evidence. Once he refuses to co-operate, Reynolds and his team begin to apply pressure. First they provide his wife with photos of one of his meetings with Rachel Banks. This causes a rift in the marriage. Next they freeze all Dean’s account so he has no access to cash. As more pressure is applied, Dean goes to further extremes to clear his name.

Enemy Of The State has three things going for it. The first, and most obvious is the simplicity in the telling a story about a need for surveillance and access to people’s most private information in the interests of national security, and at the same time showing that power abused. The second thing in Enemy Of The State’s favour is the casting of Gene Hackman as Brill. This character is not new territory for Hackman – he played a similar character in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation – or should I say, you could almost imagine that Hackman’s character from The Conversation, Harry Caul, could grow to become someone like Brill. And the final plus on Enemy Of The State’s ledger is it’s amazing allstar cast. Apart from Smith, Hackman and Voight, in supporting roles there’s such familiar faces as Jack Black, Jason Lee, Seth Green, Scott Caan, Jake Busey, Barry Pepper, Lisa Bonet, Regina King and Ian Hart. There are even cameo appearances by Jason Robards and Gabriel Byrne. This film is jam packed with actors you’ll recognise, some of them in bit parts, but it all adds to the films rich tapestry.

Quite often I come down quite hard on Tony Scott as a director because his films all tend to be the same and he utilises a lot of on screen ‘gimmicks’ to tell his story. Thankfully this is one film where his visual overload style can be given free reign and in fact is entirely appropriate. That being the case, I’d have to say that this is Scott’s most solid directorial achievement. After all that though, remember this film comes from the Jerry Bruckheimer stable, so it is loud and lots of things explode. Despite any hints of intelligence in the screenplay, this film was made primarily to entertain, and generally on that level in succeeds.

Enemy Of The State (1998)

Company Business (1991)

Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Gene Hackman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Kurtwood Smith, Terry O’Quinn, Daniel von Bargen, Oleg Rudnick, Geraldine Danon
Music by Michael Kamen

Company Business was a spy film that I was really looking forward to seeing. Not because Gene Hackman stars in it, even though I’m a huge fan of Hackman. Not because the production designer was Ken Adam, even though Adam’s futuristic set design in films like Dr. No and Dr. Strangelove revolutionised the way that films could look and feel. And not even because the score was done by Michael Kamen, even though I am fond of Kamen’s scores for Die Hard and Licence To Kill. The name that drew me to Company Business is that of the director Nicolas Meyer. I’ll be honest, I don’t know a whole heap about Meyer’s career, but what I have seen and read impresses me.

The first time I encountered Nicolas Meyer’s work was when I watched a little film called Time After Time (1979). In it, author H.G. Wells and Jack The Ripper travel forward in time to present day (back then it was 1979). They time travel using ‘The Time Machine’ from Wells’ novel of the same name. The film was pretty good, but it wasn’t great. But what intrigued me was the premise of combining a real life person, like Wells, and then combining it with a literary element, like the Time Machine, and then bringing to the story other characters from history, like Jack The Ripper.

This kind of intextualisation is very common today. Popular examples include The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing. But back in 1979, this was an interesting and fresh approach to story telling. Oh wait, I hear you say. They have been mixing up characters and stories for years – What about Billy The Kid Vs Dracula or Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein? Sure, genre and character hopping has been happening for years, but before Time After Time the productions were more like ‘gimmicks’ rather than cohesive, well researched, well read, amalgamations.

My next encounter with Meyer’s work was on a film called The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976). Meyer didn’t direct this movie. He wrote the novel on which it was based. The Seven Per Cent Solution is a Sherlock Holmes movie, but like Time After Time, the line between the literary world and the real world was blurred. In the story Sherlock Holmes meets Sigmund Freud. I haven’t seen the The Seven Per Cent Solution in years, but I remember enjoying it. The film seems impossible to find now. Some Amazon Sellers seem to have copies, but the prices start from US$229.00. I think you’d have to be a pretty fanatical Holmes fan to shell out that kind of money for a film.

The next time I watched a Meyer film, he had reached the big time. He was at the helm of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan – in my opinion, still the best of the Star trek films. If you listen carefully, the film is littered with literary allusions, from Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens to Herman Melville – From hell’s heart, I stab at thee! Meyer was invited back to direct Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country, and once again he delivered a fantastic film filled with literary references.

That brings us to Company Business, written and directed by Meyer. For me, espionage is the perfect genre for mixing fictional and real events or characters. It is already a common practice. How many times have we had Kim Philby or Carlos The Jackal placed in fictional stories. Most of the time though, this is revisionist story telling, where the failures of the Western intelligence communities are righted by a fictional hero.

But now, let’s look at the film before us: Company Business. The film is set just before the fall of Communism in Russia. The Berlin wall is down, and Gorbachev is still in power. But back in Fort Worth, Texas, retired CIA spook, Sam Boyd (Gene Hackman) is doing a little industrial espionage for the Maxine Grey Cosmetic company. It appears that one of their competitors has been stealing their formulas. Boyd, rather unconvincingly, garners the evidence and presents it to the Chairman of Maxine Grey, played by Shane Rimmer. Bond fans will remember Rimmer as Commander Carter in The Spy Who Loved Me, but he also played uncredited technicians in Diamonds Are Forever and You Only Live Twice. In fact Rimmer is an American actor who lives in London, so whenever there is a British spy film, that needs an American, they often turn to Rimmer. Apart from the Bond films, he has appeared in Dr. Strangelove, The Saint, Danger Man, The Persuaders, Scorpio, S.P.Y.S., The Human Factor, Quiller, Return Of The Saint, A Man Called Intrepid, Charlie Muffin, The Holcroft Covenant, The Bourne Identity (1988), and Spy Game. Rimmer’s role in this film lasts for about 30 seconds.

After Boyd has tied up his industrial espionage case, he catches a flight to Washington. It appears the old boy is being called out of retirement by his old employers, the C.I.A. It appears Elliot Jaffe (Kurtwood Smith) and Colonel Grissom (Terry O’Quinn) have a little mission that isn’t exactly above board. They need a man who is not on the books. What is this mission? It appears that a Russian General Grigori Golitsin (Oleg Rudnick) wants to sell back Ernest Sobel to the Americans. Sobel was a U2 spy plane pilot that was shot down and captured in 1969. The Russians are willing to sell him back for two million dollars. But so it seems like an exchange, rather than a payoff, the American are swapping Pyiotr Grushenko (Mikhail Barishnikov) for Sobel. Boyd’s mission is to go to Germany and swap Grusenko and the money for Sobel. As this deal is ‘under the table’, Boyd will have no backup.

Boyd agrees to the mission and heads to the penitentiary at Fort William to pick up Grushenko. As he travels, on his car radio he hears that a prominent college professor, Norbert Kelly has gone missing. After picking up Grushenko, both men catch a flight to Berlin. Boyd hires a car and they drive past the remains of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. This symbolises that things are changing and both Boyd and Grushenko are dinosaurs. The world is not as they once knew it. So they head to a restaurant and get drunk. That’s what old spies do!

The next day, Boyd and Grushenko go to an underground train station that has been closed to the public for maintenance. The underground train system passes into the old East Germany for two stops. At the second is where the exchange will take place. Boyd and Grushenko get onboard a train and head down the line. At the location, both men get out. Grushenko is given the case of money. He has to walk through a no-man’s land to another train further along the track. He walks. And from the other end, U2 pilot, Sobel walks towards Boyd. As Sobel walks forward, something doesn’t seem right. Through his binoculars, Boyd watches Sobel’s movements and mannerisms. Boyd doesn’t think it is Sobel at all. In fact he thinks that it is a man he saw at the airport in Washington a few days previously – a man who happens to resemble the missing college professor.

Boyd calls a halt to the exchange. From the Russian side, agents start to fire their machine guns. Boyd rushes into no man’s land firing his pistol. He rescues Grushenko, and then with the Russians at their heels they make their way back to their train. Boyd takes the controls and races through the underground system to safety. I am sure that Boyd was just lucky that all the train lines happened to be clear on that morning, and that is how he could go anywhere he wanted. I’d hate to think that it was a silly plot contrivance!

After leaving the train, Boyd and Grushenko seek refuge in a gay bar. Boyd phones in to headquarters to ask for instructions. He is directed to a safe house. After the incident at the exchange, Grushenko isn’t as trusting as Boyd. At the safe house, he refuses to just walk in. From across the street, he shoots at the door bell. His hunch is right. When the bullet hits the bell, the whole safe house explodes. The door bell was wired to a large amount of explosive.

From then on, it’s a new ball game for Boyd and Grushenko. They no longer can trusts the Russian or the Americans. They are not even sure that they can trust each other. But therein lies the strength of Company Business. Sure it’s a spy film, but at it’s heart it’s also a buddy film, and the teaming of Hackman and Barishnikov works surprisingly well.

Because the Meyer films and stories I had seen or read, have such rich intertextual bases, I expected Company Business to be the same. But it in fact is a fairly straight spy story. I could make all sorts of ridiculous claims, trying to link Company Business to other great spy films and novels. For example: The casting of Shane Rimmer in a minor role, is a nod to the three Bond films in which he played minor roles – Driving past, where Checkpoint Charlie once stood is a homage to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – Having the exchange take place in Berlin echoes Funeral In Berlin – and I could go on making this stuff up. Spy films, particularly Cold War ones have such a rich, but in many ways similar history, it is easy to manipulate the similarities to make plot lines seem like deliberate homage’s. Whereas in fact, Company Business doesn’t seem to be trying to evoke any previous spy films.

Even on a literary level, there doesn’t appear to be any attempt to layer the dialogue with lines from famous novels – spy or otherwise. Company Business seems to be telling it’s own story in it’s own style. And that’s a good thing, but not quite what I expected from Nicolas Meyer.

What you get from Company Business is 94 minutes of entertainment, with no pretensions.

Company Business (1991)