The sleek, stylish, long but briskly paced 1970-set French crime drama “The Connection” is a shades-sporting blast — surely one of the summer’s most entertaining concoctions. Consider it a refreshing trois couleurs popsicle after a steady cinematic diet of stale, butter-soaked popcorn.
And that’s a pleasant surprise, since on paper this thing could not have sounded less promising. “The Connection,” after all, covers some of the drug-smuggling ground covered by William Friedkin in his classic, Oscar-winning crime drama “The French Connection.”
Think back to Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, “that” kinetic car chase, and the indelible image of Doyle shooting a thug in the back, an image so memorably used on the film’s poster. Those are Andre the Giant-sized shoes to fill.
But director Cédric Jimenez’s “The Connection” pulls it off by expanding the story far beyond the time period in Friedkin’s film, into the early 1980s. His style, too, is more influenced by Martin Scorsese and even Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” than Friedkin. (Less gritty, more flashy.)
Shot on 35mm, “The Connection” has a widescreen scope befitting a story of international drug trafficking. The setting is Marseilles, ground zero for the heroin trade. As explained in a jazzy montage early in the film, morphine would arrive from Turkey to be processed in labs around the city, and the drug would the be shipped to New York and elsewhere.
The logistical genius involved was staggering, and this “thug-ocracy” like no other was wildly successful.
Enter Pierre Michel, a Marseilles magistrate presented with the unenviable task of taking down the network. Michel is played by Jean Dujardin, the Oscar-winning star of the modern silent smash “The Artist.” (Remember “The Artist”? Unlike “The French Connection,” there’s an Academy Awards chomp-ing flick that has receded from memory in just a few years.)
Even if it’s a rather standard G-man role, Michel is the meatiest part for Dujardin since “The Artist.” He has the George Clooney role, if you will – the smart, likable, slightly-in-over-his-head audience conduit. He’s considered by some to be a “cowboy,” a dedicated agent willing to put his family life on hold to focus on the investigation.
The kingpin here is Gaëtan “Tany” Zampa, nicely played by Gilles Lellouche with a mix of fierceness and humanity. This is no one-note villain, and Lellouche steals the picture by injecting this crime lord with, let’s say, compassionate criminality. (“Take care of their funerals. Nicest wreathes possible.”)
Michel and Zampa butt heads for most of the film’s 135-minute running time, and share several nicely menacing scenes together. These sequences lack the narrow-eyed brilliance of the Al Pacino-Robert De Niro coffee talk in Michael Mann’s “Heat” (another influence on Jimenez’s film), but serve to amplify the stakes between the two characters.
Throughout the film are successful and failed drug raids, surprise shootings, one “Marseilles massacre,” worried glances from gangsters with nicknames like “Bimbo,” and complex findings involving police corruption.
It climaxes with a thrilling raid followed by a somber killing, resulting in a nicely cynical conclusion.
The casting from Dujardin on down is just right. Since “The Artist,” the handsome star has popped up in films good (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) and bad (“Monuments Men”), but in “The Connection” he has the opportunity to display some of the “Artist”/“OSS 117” charm that made him an international success.
Making an impression in a very small role is Pauline Burlet, the young actress who gave a memorable performance as a sad-eyed, rebellious teen in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past.” She is in only a few scenes, playing a young addict, but cements her status as an actor to watch.
“The Connection” is not a masterpiece like “The French Connection,” and it likely won’t pop up on many best of 2015 lists at year’s end. But it’s a crime drama with real verve, and a welcome, tasty June treat.
A double bill of “The Connection” and “The French Connection” is a delightful idea, and despite the stylistic differences surely makes for a compelling pairing. The North Park Theatre presents the films back to back Friday, Saturday and Tuesday. Check northparktheatre.org for runtimes.
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Céline Sallette, Mélanie Doutey
Director: Cédric Jimenez
Running time: 135 minutes
Rating: R for strong violence, drug content and language. In French with subtitles.
The Lowdown: A Marseilles magistrate works to dismantle the notorious 1970s drug-smuggling operation known as the French Connection.