Mis­chief in Mar­seille

The Con­nec­tion, thriller, rated R, in French with sub­ti­tles, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 2.5 chiles

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It’s French. And it’s called The Con­nec­tion. And yes, it’s that French con­nec­tion, the one that in­spired an Os­car-win­ning movie in the early ’70s, this time seen from the other side of the At­lantic, where it all be­gan. (The orig­i­nal ti­tle was La French, so you can see the film­mak­ers were determined to make the con­nec­tion, one way or an­other.)

Direc­tor Cé­dric Jimenez (who co-wrote the screen­play with Au­drey Di­wan) starts the ac­tion in Mar­seille in 1975, when Pierre Michel (Jean Du­jardin), a tough but com­pas­sion­ate youth court mag­is­trate, is trans­ferred to nar­cotics en­force­ment to bring down drug king­pin “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lel­louche) and his heroin em­pire.

The raw ma­te­rial for this film, and for its an­tecedent, Wil­liam Fried­kin’s 1971 cop clas­sic, comes from Robin Moore’s non­fic­tion book The French Con­nec­tion: A True Ac­count of Cops, Nar­cotics, and In­ter­na­tional Con­spir­acy. Both Fried­kin and Jimenez turned the facts into fic­tion­al­ized ac­counts, but the story of the cesspool of drugs and cor­rup­tion is real enough.

Du­jardin, who took home an Os­car for his work as a si­lent-movie star in 2011’s The Artist, an­chors The Con­nec­tion as the fear­less, in­cor­rupt­ible Mag­is­trate Michel. He’s no rough-hewn “Pop­eye” Doyle, the New York cop Gene Hackman rode to his own Os­car in the Fried­kin movie. Michel is so­phis­ti­cated and pol­ished, an out­sider learn­ing the ropes in a war in which it’s not easy to tell the good guys from the bad. His op­po­site num­ber is Lel­louche, equally smooth and to­tally cor­rupt­ible as the bru­tal druglord Zampa. They’re both fam­ily men, in love with their wives, but with prob­lems at home; both are ded­i­cated and ob­ses­sive about their work. They’re even phys­i­cally sim­i­lar — dark, hand­some, square-jawed. They un­der­stand the con­cept of tough love — we see Michel deal­ing with a drug-ad­dicted teenage girl, and Zampa us­ing a very dif­fer­ent ap­proach to curb the ad­dic­tion of one of his un­der­lings. But the similarities only go so far. Michel’s hu­man­ity is pro­found and pas­sion­ate; Zampa’s is a gloss on a deep-seated evil.

The Con­nec­tion doesn’t begin to shake up the crime genre and blaze new ter­ri­tory the way Fried­kin’s movie did, but Jimenez con­structs a solid, thought­ful, and ex­cit­ing po­lice pro­ce­dural out of ma­te­rial and char­ac­ters that come steeped in fa­mil­iar­ity. The cop drama tem­plate has been worked over so much that we can’t re­ally ex­pect break­through orig­i­nal­ity any­more; keep us en­gaged in the sto­ry­telling, and we’re sat­is­fied. You’ll find cor­rup­tion in places high and low, un­flinch­ing courage, ne­glect of per­sonal re­la­tion­ships, and other familiar trap­pings of the genre.

Michel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion slogs on over a pe­riod of years, and there are times when it feels as if the movie is do­ing the same thing. The Con­nec­tion is prob­a­bly a half hour heav­ier than its frame ought to bear, but for the most part it’s in­volv­ing and solidly crafted. Du­jardin’s charis­matic pres­ence keeps us root­ing for good, with­out much hope that good will ul­ti­mately pre­vail.

— Jonathan Richards

Hero du jour: Jean Du­jardin

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