The 1975 film, The French Connection II, opens up three years after the downbeat conclusion of the first French Connection.
Having escaped from the police at the end of the first film, the wealthy and suave Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is still smuggling drugs and living his best life. He goes to parties with wealthy people. He has lunch dates with important businessman. Even though the French police are keeping an eye on him, Charnier seems to be virtually untouchable and he knows it. If Charnier seemed impossibly smug in the first French Connection, he’s even worse in the second one.
Charnier may be enjoying himself in Marseille but what he doesn’t know is that there’s an American tourist in town. He’s a very loud American, one who insists on trying to speak to everyone in English and is shocked to discover that most of the French natives don’t have the slightest clue as to what he’s talking about. He’s shocked when he goes into a bar and fails to impress two young French women. He also doesn’t seem to understand that even French people who speak English are not going to appreciate being called a “frogs.” He wanders around town in loud shirts and with a fedora sitting rakishly on his balding head.
Yep, it’s Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman). The anti-hero from the first French Connection is still on the case and he’s now come all the way to France to help track down Charnier. The last time we saw Doyle, he had just accidentally killed a cop and was running through a dark warehouse, firing his gun. In fact, the first film ended with the suggestion that Doyle was such a loose cannon that his career as a narcotics detective was probably over. Instead, in the sequel, we learn that Popeye is still working in narcotics and he’s still just as much of a loose cannon as he ever was. If you thought people in New York found Popeye to be obnoxious, just you wait to see how the French react to him!
What Popeye doesn’t know is that his superiors in New York have only sent him to Marsielle so that he can be a target. They know that Popeye will never be able to blend in. Charnier will spot him and, hopefully, Charnier will panic and make some sort of mistake that will finally allow the police to capture him. French detective Henri (Bernard Fresson) goes along with the plan, despite his own moral objections. Henri can’t stand Popeye but he doesn’t want to see him killed either.
It doesn’t take long for Charnier to notice Popeye. After Popeye is captured by Charnier’s man, they inject him with heroin until soon, Popeye is an addict. Before Popeye can finally get his shot at Charnier, he’s going to have to overcome his own drug addiction….
The French Connection II starts out well, with Gene Hackman wandering around Marsielle and acting like a stereotypical ugly American. Director John Frankenheimer does a good job of keeping the action moving at a steady pace during the first half of the film and there’s a lot of great scenes involving Popeye being followed around town by not just the police but also Charnier’s men. The first half of the film does a great job of establishing an atmosphere of paranoia, which is not surprising when you consider that Frankenheimer’s other credits included The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days In May, and Seconds.
Unfortunately, once Popeye is captured and gets hooked on heroin, the action not only comes to a halt but the normally reliable Gene Hackman starts to act up a storm. When Popeye, while going through withdrawal, starts talking about how he used to play baseball and how he once has a try-out with the New York Yankees, the scene seems to go on forever and Hackman’s performance becomes so histrionic that you basically just end up feeling like you’re watching someone auditioning his heart out for a spot in the Actor’s Studio. Gene Hackman was one of the world’s great actors and Popeye Doyle was a great role but, in The French Connection II, we’re reminded that even a great actor occasionally needs to have his performance reined in.
Eventually, after Hackman’s had his big Oscar moment, the action kicks back in and the film kind of regains its momentum. There’s a big action scene towards the end of the film. (Ironically, it’s the type of big, good guys vs. bad guys shoot out that the first film deliberately avoided.) The film ends with a literal bang that’s abrupt yet undeniably effective.
As far as sequels go, The French Connection II is good. It’s not great and, not surprisingly, it doesn’t come anywhere close to matching the power of the first film. But it still has enough effective scenes to make it worth watching. You just might want to hit fast forward whenever Popeye starts talking about baseball…..
Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia: