Released in 1971 and the winner of five Oscars, among them Best Film, Best Director (William Friedkin) and Best Actor (Gene Hackman), The French Connection is a hard act to follow. Enthrallingly shot with an almost documentary immediacy, its bleak, gritty and relentless, a breathlessly exciting crime thriller that’s based on a true story in much the same fashion as Moby Dick is just a big, dumb book about the 19th century Massachusetts whaling industry, director William Friedkin and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman taking Robin Moore’s labyrinthine, but rather dry (seriously, have you ever tried to read it?), non-fiction exposé of the international heroin trade and fashioning a dark, sleek walk on New York’s wild side.

With its thuggish, blue collar Irish cop hero Popeye Doyle’s quest to capture the debonair French smuggler Frog One ultimately unresolved at the climax of Friedkin’s film it’s practically a no-brainer to follow the conspiracy back to its roots in the sleazy, violent underworld of the French port city of Marseille. Which is exactly what Jimenez’s The Connection (released in France as The French) does. So, it’s kind of a shame that Popeye and director John Frankenheimer got there first with 1975’s French Connection 2.

Opening in a long, hot, mid-seventies Summer of drive-by shootings and overdosing teenagers, The Connection charts real-life crusading prosecuting magistrate Pierre Michel’s (Jean Dujardin) battles against police and political corruption in his obsessive quest to almost single-handedly clean up the mean streets of Marseille and his bitter, decade-long battle to bring down ruthless local Corsican mob boss Tany Zampa (Gilles LeLouche) whose international smuggling network is funneling huge shipments of heroin from Turkey through Marseille to New York, tragedy ultimately waiting for both men.

With its taut, violent shootouts and executions and its robust plotting, The Connection is a solid Gallic policier that holds few surprises and at 135 minutes is perhaps 20 minutes longer than it needs to be. There’s a fascinating story to be told, touched on by Moore’s original book, of the Corsican gangsters who revolutionised the drug trade, a fractious cocktail of ex-Resistance fighters and Nazi collaborators who flooded the USA with high quality heroin with the tacit approval and protection of both the CIA and the French SDECE who saw them as a vital bulwark against the spread of communist influence in the old port of Marseille. The Connection is not that story.

Instead it’s the now familiar retro, polyester lounge suit and sideburns approach to the gangster movie eschewing the operatic grit of Audiard’s A Prophet or Olivier Marchal’s 36 Quai des Orfèvres, it’s Goodfellas on a budget, with a style feeling closer to a French TV movie while Jimenez telegraphs his Michael Mann influences through the duality of protagonist and antagonist, even giving them their own Heat-style coffee shop scene as Dujardin and LeLouche tepidly confront each other on a mountain road.

And there lies The Connection’s greatest disappointment; it just never catches fire. It rattles through the years of death and casual brutality, of shoot-outs and wire-taps, of souring marriages, broken friendships and betrayals nippily enough but at its dark heart are two rather bland, glum performances. A relaxed and gifted light comedian, Dujardin feels miscast as the tortured, driven ex-gambling addict Michel, perpetually on the verge of some OSS 117 buffoonery while LeLouche’s mineral water-supping control freak is as sulky when executing rivals or forcing henchmen to overdose as he is when opening a superclub for his wife. These are men in tight control of their vices and, while a clear head is probably a prerequisite in building an international drug empire (or in taking one down), it doesn’t make very interesting viewing.

DVD Review: The Connection
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