Friday, December 10, 2010

The French Connection

The French Connection is sort of in a weird position with regard to its legacy and how well it holds up. On one hand, it fits right in with a lot of more modern thrillers and crime stories, because it was a really early example of the super gritty way of doing that, with a down to earth and believable style and blunt depictions of its adult content. But on the other hand, some of the impact of that is lost because it's become such an obvious way to do these kinds of stories. The shock of seeing movies made this way is lost when it's so common now. A victim of its own influence. It's still a very good movie, but it was probably amazing 40 years ago. Back then it was showing a dark side of New York no one had ever seen before, but now it looks completely familiar to anyone who's ever played Grand Theft Auto IV. Today I wouldn't pick it as a better film from that year than A Clockwork Orange, but I can see how it was definitely more important.

The film is based on the true story of two narcotics cops in New York uncovering a heroin pipeline from France to their own city, slowly over the course of a few months, as they follow suspicious characters, listen to hours of taped conversations, and gradually connect the dots in a large criminal conspiracy. It's basically like a mini-season of The Wire, and as a bonus it's all basically real. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider are essentially playing real people, only slightly fictionalized versions of the real cops, and they both happen to be outstanding in the movie. Hackman won an Oscar playing Popeye Doyle, and it's here that he created his tough-guy persona that he's used on occasion to great effect for years. A lot of the movie is fairly sedate, but things always have a chance to get dangerous when Doyle's around, and the film does happen to have a pretty outstanding action scene added near the end. It only exists because a producer mandated that they add a chase that outdoes Bullitt, but it's a unique and exciting scene that doesn't match the technical superiority of more modern chases but in some ways manages to thrill more, and it's just a great sequence from start to finish. The ending is surprising in its ambiguity and lack of triumph, but it definitely works for the story they were telling. It's a movie about the real world, and from that perspective it seems like a total success.

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