French Connection II Review
The biggest albatross generally hanging around the neck of a sequel to a successful film is its precursor. Judging one against the other is both natural and deserved. The sequel is, almost always, trading on a name and familiar characters in the hopes of collecting the most viewers possible. If the powers that be would like a film to exist entirely on its own merit having it be a sequel is simply a bad idea. We compare and contrast one film to the next not out of habit, but from the entirely organic idea of measuring movies that have a great deal in common with each other. Inevitably, though, what seems to occur is that some of the major principals who probably bear much of the responsibility for the original's success choose to stay on the sidelines for the sequel(s). You catch lightning in a bottle once, but when you try it again there's either no lightning or no bottle. It simply doesn't work as well the second time. The few sequels that do match up with their first films typically have the same director (The Godfather Part II, notably) or they have someone who's even better (the second and third Bourne films come to mind). For every Batman Returns or The Empire Strikes Back, though, there are countless incarnations of Jaws, Psycho, or Rocky. Sequels simply cannot be trusted.
The sequelitis epidemic broke out in the 1970s and still manages to infect the multiplexes today. There is no known cure or vaccine. Half of the Best Picture winners that decade spawned sequels, and that doesn't even include The Exorcist, Jaws, or Star Wars, three of the worst offenders. Though not quite as inherently strange as the idea of following up The Sting with a second installment starring Jackie Gleason and Mac Davis, it still seems ill-conceived to have added another part to William Friedkin's 1971 film The French Connection four years later. Curiously dropping the definite article of the original's title, French Connection II was released in 1975 without the participation of Friedkin or Roy Scheider, who played the key supporting part of Det. Buddy Russo in the first film. Those are probably the most obvious elements lost from one film to the next, but certainly not the only ones. Also absent are director of photography Owen Roizman (with Claude Renoir, the nephew of legendary French director Jean Renoir, in his place), producer Philip D'Antoni, and the fact-based source material that heavily influenced The French Connection. In fact, the main holdovers are Gene Hackman, again as Det. Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, and Fernando Rey, playing suave drug smuggler Alain Charnier. Both are key players, obviously, but I think the increased presence of Hackman, now ably carrying the full load of the film given his status as a viable leading man, perfectly illustrates why French Connection II is the exact kind of picture its predecessor was an antidote to both at the time of its release and even now, decades later. The documentary feel is gone in favour of this being a star vehicle.
When we last left Det. Doyle the feeling was one of heavy frustration and defeat. Friedkin stayed true to the material by ending his film with Charnier escaping capture. The epilogue of The French Connection then states that nearly everyone involved in this massive heroin smuggling ring, which had seemingly been fully tagged, got off with little more than a slap to the wrist. It was a brilliant and ballsy end to a film of equal regard. How do you follow it up? Take Doyle, by himself, to France and make him hellbent on capturing Charnier while acting every bit the ugly American. Oh, and get him addicted to smack. What better way to turn the tables on someone trying to stop an illegal drug operation than to force heroin into his body? It's a minor shame that Popeye's detective skills apparently were unable to make the trip over from New York City. Those and Cloudy might've helped him out when he was being kidnapped by Charnier's men.
Strictly as a cop drama, French Connection II does a satisfactory job of ebbing and flowing across the predictable expanse of the procedural. I wouldn't classify it as either good or bad. The film attempts to turn inward for psychological angst over full-on action, but mostly it plays to those viewers looking for the Popeye Doyle Show. In no way does it even come close to transcending its genre the way Friedkin's film still does. Expecting as much, I'd always been hesitant to watch the sequel and, seeing it now, this is neither an expansion nor a faithful complement. Like most sequels, French Connection II is wholly unnecessary, if not quite a blight on the reputation of the original. The things II seems interested in exploring - primarily, jingoistic cop in a strange land seeks revenge from smuggler after being left holding his dick - become crude variations on convention. Character development is forced but predictable whereas the first film neglected specifically showing most of Doyle's off-duty habits because it was confident enough in Hackman's performance outside the margins. Things were pared down in The French Connection to the point where every scene was essential in the twin contexts of the case and the characters.
Under the surprisingly generic direction of John Frankenheimer, who tried too hard to emulate the Friedkin film's style, French Connection II has no time for restraint or greater ambition. It's a blunt, dated movie with a protagonist who was once fascinating. Popeye Doyle was an unapologetic bigot, asshole and loathsome figure in the first movie, but he was also a damn good detective. This version of Doyle has perfunctory bouts with authority and non-English speakers when he's not boozing or engaging in questionable displays of judgment. Now more stupid than stubborn, Doyle gets himself into a humdinger of a problem that begins when Charnier spots him in Marseilles. By coincidence, Doyle's frog is in a restaurant and seated by a window when the detective is trying to flirt with a volleyball player. You could argue that Doyle's weakness for women and his cultural displacement cause him to not pay enough attention both to the slim possibility that Charnier would be at that restaurant (though what would've been the harm in looking around) and, later, when he's abducted by a couple of goons. But I don't think the Doyle from the earlier film lets his guard down so carelessly. His doggedness and determination seemed keener there.
By the time Doyle is shot up with dope, followed later by him babbling with limited coherence about Hershey bars and Mickey Mantle, my patience was wearing thin. Hackman plays it sportingly, but he no longer seems like the Popeye Doyle character we met in New York City. Friedkin filmed everything to the bone and eliminated all the excess. Doyle's hysterics, and really the absurdity of the whole idea, would be more at home in a grindhouse-type of movie than a sequel to The French Connection. The authenticity that the first part's filmmakers insisted on goes completely out the window, flooding through like the Poseidon-esque setpiece near the end of II. While the very final wrap-up, which is nonetheless impressive in its abruptness, may feel satisfying on some primal level, this isn't a Death Wish or Dirty Harry movie we're watching. That's not how it happened. This popcorn catharsis is fraudulent.
At least French Connection II doesn't have the same sort of compromised transfer as its big brother. That would most likely be due to the facts that the film's director: A.) is no longer with us and B.) is not William Friedkin. The 1.85:1 transfer doesn't necessarily leave the viewer overwhelmed, however. This is a dual-layered disc, encoded for Region A, and there's no damage to speak of at all. Detail is adequate to good given the format here and colours look far more natural than in the film's predecessor. That said, there's still a washed-out, faded quality to the transfer. I think Fox has done an acceptable job overall, even leaving some very mild grain in the picture, but there's an inherent flatness to the image that keeps it from really being impressive. The quality is still good enough to sway fans of the film to a purchase, I'd say, but not so outstanding as to hook the A/V junkies.
Another English 5.1 DTS-HD audio track and this is also a satisfactory effort. Dialogue and Don Ellis' very different score from the first movie are both clearly heard. A few gunshots try to use the surround sound, but it's hardly an active mix. Unlike the first film, there are no Dolby Digital Surround options. Just mono in English, Spanish and French audio. There are also subtitles in English and Spanish, as well as Mandarin and Cantonese. These are white in colour. As with the first film's Blu-ray, an isolated music track featuring Don Ellis' score has been included.
Two commentaries, both originating with the DVD releases, but nonetheless welcome. One features director John Frankenheimer and is absolutely great. The late filmmaker explains that he was reluctant to come aboard for a sequel, but agreed to do it after discovering the shoot would be in France. He consistently has high praise for Hackman, with whom he'd previously worked on The Gypsy Moths, and comes off as very professional and dedicated. Frankenheimer also mentions eight minutes that were cut from the film by Fox after it had already opened, and he's quite incensed about that. The other track has Gene Hackman and producer Robert Rosen, who seem to have been recorded separately. Rosen speaks mostly on the production and behind the scenes aspects while Hackman's comments are much more sparse and general, covering some of the same ground as his short interview on this disc. There are a couple of places of inactivity where we only hear dead air for several minutes. Of the two tracks, there's no contest that Frankenheimer's commentary is far better and is probably the only one you really need to listen to.
Aside from stills galleries, highlighting wardrobe and the storyboards from five scenes, and trailers, there are only two pieces of bonus material, both in HD. Surprisingly meaty is "Frankenheimer: In Focus" (25:13), which really details the director's career from his early, live television work to his later, Emmy-winning television films. It includes interviews with his widow and daughter, as well as Bruce Dern and, of all people, William Friedkin. There are also some snippets of a vintage interview with the director. It's extremely complimentary and doesn't really focus on French Connection II any more than some of his other films. Especially interesting, the effect that Bobby Kennedy's assassination had on Frankenheimer and the commercial failure of Black Sunday are both identified as significant turning points in his career.
There's also "A Conversation with Gene Hackman" (7:06) which is simply too short and includes a bunch of clips from the film. It's from the same session as his interview on the first film's Blu-ray. Hackman's comments are mostly limited to the sequel and he mentions that it suffered in comparison to the earlier movie, though he generally seems to think it's a pretty good effort. He comes across in these interviews as remarkably content, refreshed, and well. It's now been over five years since Hackman's last film was released, and I really hope there are a few more roles in store for him.
Three trailers for French Connection II are included, though they're all the same length (3:15) and have identical video content. The languages, however, vary with English, Japanese and French all being represented. The trailer (2:51) for The French Connection is also here, somewhat hidden away. It was unfortunately omitted from that film's Blu-ray release.