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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The French Connection (review)

The Mother of All Action Movies

It’s hard to believe that what once passed for an action film — like all those giant insect movies of the 50s — was relegated to the B-movie slot, and that it was necessary for someone to create the A-list, big-budget action movie. (That most action movies have devolved today back into the equivalent of B flicks in spite of marquee stars and budgets exceeding the GNP of small African countries is beside the point.)
The French Connection is Patient Zero in Hollywood’s epidemic of blood, guts, and mayhem, the Typhoid Mary that spread gunplay, car chases, and psychotic cops throughout filmdom. Like Typhoid Mary, though, The French Connection has only a mild, nonfatal case of the sickness that continues to rage through movies. This film demonstrates how smart action movies can be, and points out how dumbed down most of them have gotten.

Driven jointly by plot and character — as the best action films are — The French Connection follows two New York City narcotics cops as they pursue a lead about a big heroin shipment due from Marseilles and watch it develop into a scheme that could destroy the entire dope trade between Paris and New York. “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) is the prototype action-film maverick: he’s a womanizer, he’s always chasing down some crazy hunch or another, and you never quite know whether he’s just playing “bad cop” or whether he’s a timebomb waiting to go off. (In fact, the only element missing that would have cemented Doyle’s paternity of Martin Riggs, John McClane, and their ilk is the now de rigueur scene in which the police captain shakes his head sadly and says, “I’ll have to ask for your gun and badge.”) Doyle’s partner, Russo (Roy Scheider), is the standard-issue, no-nonsense “good cop,” though of course at the time the character was a lot fresher than it is today. They speak the way cops actually speak, not swearing constantly but when appropriate. You stop hearing the word fuck when it’s uttered in every other line, as with today’s typical action movie, but when it’s saved until it’s really needed, as in The French Connection, it actually serves a purpose, and it actually — imagine this — is shocking.

Likewise, stunning, realistic violence that’s held in reserve is all the more effective when it does finally strike. One brilliant scene sees Doyle returning home when without warning a sniper on top of Doyle’s apartment building starts taking potshots at the cop. When an innocent bystander — a lady with baby carriage! — is hit, it feels as if a brutality that had previously been contained within the confines of the film has spilled over into our world. It kicks you in the gut in a way that the nonstop bloodshed so popular today can’t even approach.

The Fugitive is the only action movie in recent years to even come close to the example set by The French Connection. I love a good action flick — emphasis on good. Too bad there are so few of them. It’s especially a pity when there’s a fabulous blueprint to be had.

Best Picture 1971
AFI 100: #70

unforgettable movie moment:
Doyle in a car chases a train zooming along elevated tracks above him. It’s impossible to drive in NYC without thinking of this spectacular sequence, in which Doyle navigates at high speed the support pillars that make the streets an obstacle course. Even today this remains innovative and creative filmmaking.

previous Best Picture:
1970: Patton
next Best Picture:
1972: The Godfather

previous AFI 100 film:
69: Shane
next AFI 100 film:
71: Forrest Gump


MPAA: rated R

viewed at home on a small screen

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