Our last episode of Shouts From the Back Row tackled the subject of unfairly maligned sequels, and it goes without saying that “Robin’s Underrated Gems” has covered quite a few of them, including Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Psycho II, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and 2010. Today, I shall focus on an unfairly maligned sequel that some people may not even be aware of: French Connection II. William Fredkin’s The French Connection is one of the most influential cop movies of all time, as it captured numerous Academy Awards in 1971, including “Best Picture” and “Best Actor” for Gene Hackman’s iconic performance as tough New York City cop Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. And, of course, the film’s greatest legacy is the famous sequence where Doyle frantically drives through New York to pursue a bad guy in an elevated subway train, one of cinema’s all-time greatest chases. The French Connection is one those renowned classics that modern audiences may watch and wonder what the big deal is. The film is a straightforward police procedural (loosely based on a true event) of the N.Y.P.D narcotics squad’s attempts to seize a large shipment of narcotics that has been smuggled into America by French drug dealers. The storyline is pretty simple and while it’s undeniable that The French Connection functions very well as an action picture, I’m sure today’s generation may have trouble figuring out why it merited an Academy Award for “Best Picture”. However, back in 1971, this type of gritty realistic police drama had rarely been seen before and audiences were taken aback by it. The character of Popeye Doyle, an amoral hot-tempered asshole who just happened to be really good at his job, was also very unique at the time. The massive success of The French Connection would eventually lead to a sequel four years later and while many people found it to be disappointing, it’s actually a lot better than it has been given credit for.
An interesting piece of trivia about French Connection II: it is the first sequel whose title simply ends with a number or Roman numeral. Believe it or not, there was once a time when all sequels were released with an entirely different title, and the first film that came up with the idea of adding a “Part II” onto the end of its title is one of the greatest sequels of all time: The Godfather Part II. French Connection II was the first sequel to eliminate the “Part” aspect of the title, and this is the formula that most sequel titles have followed ever since. Anyway, the original French Connection had an ambiguous and fairly ballsy ending where Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) successfully seized the shipment of heroin, but the lead smuggler, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), was able to escape and flee back home to France. A follow-up to this ending seemed only natural and for this sequel, John Frankenheimer would take over the directorial reins from William Friedkin. The storyline for French Connection II involves Doyle travelling all the way to Marseilles, France in order to continue his obsessive quest to capture Charner. The first act of French Connection II is essentially a comedic “fish out of water” story that showcases Doyle’s difficulty at functioning in his new surroundings. The language barrier makes it hard for him to do such simple things like ordering a drink and while his abrasive personality suited him well on the mean streets of New York City, it does not mesh with the world of Marseilles. Much to his disgust, Doyle is assigned to work with the by-the-book Inspector Barthelemy (Bernard Fresson), and needless to say, their ideas about police work are much different.
While the first act of French Connection II is fairly light-hearted, the movie’s second act suddenly delves into much darker territory when Charnier kidnaps Doyle and decides that instead of killing him, he’s going to turn him into a heroin junkie. Doyle is eventually returned to the police and the film’s midsection consists of a very long, painful series of scenes where Doyle is forced to go cold turkey and beat his new addiction. After Doyle’s recovery, the film proceeds to deliver a very exciting, action-packed third act, but for some viewers, the whole section with the heroin addiction has completely sucked all the fun out of the film. Needless to say, the second act of French Connection II has always provoked mixed reactions amongst audiences. One of the reasons the original French Connection was so popular was because it was a fast-paced cop movie which never let up for second, so I’m sure many viewers were not prepared for a sequel that decided to grind to a complete halt and focus on its protagonist going through heroin withdrawal. Admittedly, I felt the same way the first time I saw French Connection II and even I thought the first and third acts of the film were very strong, the long midsection with the heroin addiction just seemed to drag the whole thing down. On subsequent viewings, however, I’ve come to appreciate just how effective these scenes are at turning Popeye Doyle into a full-fledged three-dimensional character. Since Doyle was always portrayed as such a cocky no-nonsense tough guy, it’s quite fascinating to watch him become so vulnerable and pathetic, and not many sequels would have the balls to do this with their main character. Of course, this section is also an acting tour-de-force for Gene Hackman, who pulls off the enormously difficult task of making a series of scenes of a guy in a tiny cell compelling to watch, and he’s so convincing that it’s easy to see why some viewers would find the whole thing uncomfortable. Even though he already won an Academy Award for his performance in the original film, Hackman really should have at least gotten a nomination for his work in the sequel. His amazing commitment to the role was also exemplified during the filming of this climactic chase scene. Hackman had a badly injured knee, but still insisted on doing all the running himself because he believed the genuine expressions of pain on his face would add so much to the scene.
John Frankenheimer made the wise decision not to try and top the iconic chase sequence from the original film, but this sequel’s finale, where Doyle doggedly chases after Charnier on foot past the point of exhaustion and sanity, is a bravura piece of filmmaking. Hackman’s instincts about filming the scene while he was injured were correct since Doyle’s obsessive drive and determination to catch Charnier say so much about his character. French Connection II concludes with one of the more sudden and abrupt endings to a film that you are ever likely to see, yet it just seems to fit the situation perfectly. It seems that most sequels have the misfortune of facing a Catch-22: nobody wants them to be lazy rehashes of the original, but if they wind up being TOO different, the audience may feel alienated. While it still delivers a lot of the same thrills and excitement as its predecessor, French Connection II is not a lazy retread and does not hesitate to venture into some very dark and unexpected places. Some viewers may consider the film’s changes in tone to be jarring and find the second act too unpleasant to watch, but you’ve at least got to give French Connection II a lot of credit for being brave enough to try something different. It’s interesting to ponder that sequels were nowhere near as common when this film was released in 1975 and I’d almost say that many of the negative reviews it received were from people who might have taken it for granted. Yes, overall, it wasn’t as good a film ass the original and might done some things that viewers didn’t like, but considering the amount of lazy, unimaginative sequels that would be released in subsequent decades, French Connection II has held up really well. While it’s become common for popular film franchises to tell their entire story in the form of a trilogy, French Connection is one franchise that does everything it needs to do in two films. If you’re looking for a good one-two punch of a solid movie and a solid sequel, you can’t do much better than French Connection I and II.