Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: "The Connection"

"The French Connection" became a classic crime movie because of Gene Hackman's pugnacious portrayal of an American cop chasing down the flow of heroin from France, and William Friedkin's gritty, bloody-knuckles style of filmmaking. But the drug war was actually a real thing, and for years international law enforcement agencies seemed powerless against an octopus of a criminal cartel.

"The Connection" is the based-on-truth tale of the beast finally meeting its maker from the French perspective. Jean Dujardin, an Oscar winner for his joyous turn in "The Artist," plays a crusading young magistrate who took the fight to the mob bosses.

This movie doesn't have the immediacy or punch of the 1971 film, but it's an engaging crime procedural that shows the daring steps drug lords go to in order to carry out their illicit trade, and what a herculean effort it requires for the law-and-order types to untie the knot of corruption that often ensnares their own agencies and colleagues.

Dujardin plays Pierre Michel, a callow magistrate who mostly dealt with reforming young junkies until he was tapped to oversee the major crimes unit in Marseilles. In one of the interesting things about the story, magistrates are a European concoction that combine aspects of American police, judge and prosecutor. He works with the local cops but has to convince them to cooperate.

Pierre encounters a lot of resistance at first, especially from an older police officer who's seen plenty of magistrates come and go, more interested in promoting themselves to the next higher office than actually slowing the flow of deadly heroine. The first half of the movie essentially deals with the two men finding a way to work together, and eventually becoming fast friends.

The latter half becomes more of a character study between Pierre and his chief opponent, crime boss Gaëtan "Tany" Zampa. He's played by Gilles Lellouche, who has a physical resemblance to Dujardin so strong that I cannot believe director Cedric Jimenez left it to accident. (Jimenez also co-wrote the screenplay.) Both men have sloping foreheads and prominent Gallic brows and noses; they resemble distant cousins of Liam Neeson whose forebears might've slipped across the Channel long ago.

Each are family men who place a high price on loyalty and comradeship. They have one great scene together where Pierre is tailing Tany in his car -- this magistrate likes to savor the street action -- and they end up having a faceoff with one of the beautiful Marseilles backdrops behind them. Lellouche and Dujardin make for a charismatic pair of antagonists.

Also a formidable screen presence is Benoît Magimel as Thomas Calazzi, aka Crazy Horse, one of Tany's chief rivals who ends up as something of a third wheel in the long war between Pierre and Tany. He has a shocking twist to his story that is probably showbiz BS, but I still was enthralled by it.

Céline Sallette has the thankless role of Pierre's wife, the sort who's always complaining about the main character spending so much time at work. I also enjoyed Bruno Todeschini as a smarmy party boy type who gets in too deep with the bad guys, and Guillaume Gouix as a junior detective who shows Pierre the underbelly of policing in southern France.

"The Conversation" isn't a great movie; it seems to have grander ambitions about linking the lives of the two main characters with their relationship to their wives, children, underlings, etc. These tend to get swept under by the relentless plot, but that's OK when the story is this gripping.

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