Cédric Jimenez’s The Connection centers on the Marseilles-based heroin trade made famous in William Friedkin’s The French Connection, renewing narrative emphasis on the case’s real-life prosecuting magistrate, Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin), and his pursuit of kingpin Tany Zampa (Gilles Lelouche). Dujardin doesn’t exactly disappear into the role, deploying his familiar tics (the cheesy grin, the extra-malleable eyebrows) as if daring the audience to laugh at him; this is apt, given that Michel’s white-knight hardassery comes as equal surprise to his police colleagues and underworld targets. The film feels utterly infatuated by the cop/crook dividing line long-since drawn, if not flogged, by Michael Mann: Michel struggles to balance his hunt for Zampa with his prerogatives as a dedicated husband and father, while his nemesis is seen (in one of the film’s many, interminably unsubtle crosscuts) as an equally doting family man, even while his product is killing record numbers of people. The two eventually meet in a showdown atop one of the town’s many stupefying vistas, either man positioned at the opposite end of the frame, mirror images with only a giant, magic-hour lens flare separating them. “You got everyone talking, tail after me,” Zampa sneers. “No woman did as much.”
Despair mingles better with glamour in Marseilles (where Jimenez grew up) than in Friedkin’s filth-encrusted Big Apple, and a much-alluded-to irony is that Zampa’s wiseguys don’t consider themselves French, but rather Corsican and Neopolitan. In The Connection’s most piquant moments, the drug war gives chase to an elaborate cross-section of underground networks, assimilation anxieties, and shards of postwar nationalism, even prompting a brief detour into the 1981 election of François Mitterrand (France’s first socialist president) as a metric for how little small-town corruption manages to change. But however laudable, these details are the exception and not the rule; Jimenez’s film is drawn in broad, hackneyed strokes, trying to counterbalance its supposed moral rectitude with the inevitably macho blood-and-guts subject matter. The film pains itself to meet the standards of the all-important procedural without relinquishing its aspirations to wham-bam Hollywood-ready entertainment. For a while, before pirouetting into operatic hysterics, it crackles nicely—even if the resultant mix feels like something every moviegoer has seen, and been entertained by, before.