The first French Connection is one of my all-time favorite movies. I can’t find a single thing wrong with it. It’s so perfect, so ‘of the times,’ such an involving and gripping police thriller. Probably my favorite Gene Hackman performance of all-time, he embodies his character of “Popeye” Doyle so well, so perfectly, so flawlessly, that he simply melts into the role. And, thankfully, he’s around for the second installment of French Connection, which incidentally is not as good as the original, but still a solid police thriller. And while French Connection 2 may damper the classic ending of the first French Connection, it still forms a satisfactory two-part installment overall. So, let’s dive a little deeper into these two classic movies, now available on Blu-ray. Believe me, these are two movies you will want to add to your movie collection, and I’ll tell you why after the synopsis.
New York City detectives “Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Schneider) hope to break a narcotics smuggling ring and ultimately uncover The French Connection. Based on a true story, this action-packed thriller won five 1971 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Directing (William Friedkin), Actor (Hackman), Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing. Then, Gene Hackman returns as “Popeye” Doyle, the hard-nosed New York detective determined to break a French narcotics ring in the acclaimed sequel. Kidnapped by a heroin kingpin in Marseilles, Doyle is mercilessly forced to become a junkie himself! Gritty action, riveting performances and a vividly realistic setting make French Connection II a powerful sequel to the brilliant original.
The 1970s is considered one, of not the, best era for film-making, and The French Connection is a prime example of the great work that was being done in that time. This film remains one of the absolute best of the crime genre, and one of my personal favorites. Whether it’s the realistic and gritty setting, the morally gray characters, the incredibly brutal language, and just the actual overall feel of the of the movie, The French Connection set the benchmark for what it takes to great a great crime drama. I’m sure it sounds like I’m overselling it, but, even today, The French Connection holds up. It’s just a great film from start to finish with a great leading character and a great storyline. And, seriously, it also has one of the best car chases put to film. And what’s more surprising it that, not once, does the car chase in this film ever feel tacked on, but a natural extension of both the movie storyline and the lead character.
The realistic feel of this movie is thanks to the superb directing of William Friedkin. His background in documentary film-making helps add to the realism that a movie like this needs. It needs to feel real, and Friedkin is able to make it just that. Not once to we ever doubt what we’re seeing on film. At the same time, it’s a film that doesn’t force-feed every last bit of information. The movie requires the audience to fill in the blanks and, essentially, pay attention. And again, that helps make the movie feel all the more real. But, for all of the pseudo-documentary overtones of the movie, there may be a few moments that kind-of do feel staged, it’s nothing overly distracting. The documentary-style manages to pull you into the world of “Popeye” Doyle and his obsession-riddled, relentless pursuit as he and his partner Russo try to capture a pivotal player in the New York drug scene.
As I mentioned above, many of the characters here live in a morally gray era, particularly “Popeye” Doyle, who, at times, appears to be no more than a thug with a badge. We see him pester women, lash out with a sharp tongue, and treat more than a few people like absolute garbage. And this guy is our “heroic” lead! I have to admire the bravado by both Friedkin and Hackman to make Doyle such a multi-layered and sometimes brutish character, one who’d punch you rather than talk to you. But, for nearly the whole movie, we see him pursue justice with a vengeance, nearly unforgiving in his methods. One can’t help but think that the movie is basically saying that in order to catch a crook, you need a crook behind the badge.
Of course, things change a bit for the sequel. Only a couple of characters return for French Connection 2, and one of them is Gene Hackman. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave the identity of the other character out of this review. Given how groundbreaking The French Connection was, the worst thing the sequel could be is mediocre and, sadly, it’s just that. It’s a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but it seems so run-of-the-mill compared to the original. I understand what the sequel attempts to do, and it does have some genuinely interesting moments that leads up, again, to a great final scene, but it lacks that punch that the original movie had. I know this sounds all doom and gloom for the movie, but it’s really not. While the sequel may not stand close to the original, it’s still a good movie. Hackman, once again, does a great turn as “Popeye,” who’s now struggling with a forced drug addiction while trying to bring a drug ring to an end. Hackman really puts himself into the character again as Doyle’s life just shatters as his determination to see justice, his version of justice, done.
Simply put, French Connection 2 does not equal its predecessor, but it is not a bad movie. It seems to be an instance where the sequel, while good, just can’t match what the original brought forth. The French Connection is a true cinematic landmark, and one of the best films to come out of the 1970s, but the sequel just succumbs to the greatness created from the original. But, despite that, it is still worth checking out. It’s a good movie, especially as a standalone flick.
The French Connection is a stellar movie that definitely deserves to be revisited, especially now that it is available on high-definition Blu-ray. It’s a great police thriller from beginning to end, with a stirring performance from Hackman as the lead. Now, I’ve kept a large heaping of spoilers out of this review because I don’t want to spoil some of the great scenes, including one of the most infamous lines in cinema history, a chilling shooting death, and the brilliant ending. The French Connection comes Highly Recommended to own, as it’s a great movie to experience, one that movie-fans will definitely enjoy. As for the sequel French Connection 2, you may want to consider a Rental before opting whether or not to add it to your collection alongside the original. As I said, the second movie is a good movie, but it just can’t measure up to the Oscar-winning original. The obsession and gritty realism just brings the movie to life in a way that makes it unforgettable and, especially after that last scene, I guarantee it’ll leave you stunned.
Arriving on Blu-ray for the first time, the French Connection films each receive release in a standard Elite Blu-ray case. The first film boasts two full discs (both Blu-ray) as well as a slew of new featurettes, while the second film is a little less impressive with only a single disc outing with a small smattering of extras. Both films include inserts for firmware upgrades and the disc art for the first film mimics the cover, while the second film boasts original art. Menus for both films are simple and easy to navigate.
Video…well, that’s where things get dicey. Director William Friedkin went back and changed up the transfer for The French Connection and while I’ve never seen it in its original state, I can definitely say there are a few issues with the transfer. While the color levels are quite muted and murky at times, they aren’t even the problem; moreso it’s just the way that colors bleed sometimes that makes the transfer rather irksome at times. It’s nothing major and for the most part the AVC (@34.5mbps) encoded transfer, with its obscenely high bitrate, is relatively pleasant to the eye…but it certainly isn’t a perfect transfer by any means. But, I can’t complain much about a transfer that the director himself supervised (though I also don’t object to the Star Wars changes either, so…yeah). The audio itself is absolutely fantastic, with a DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix bringing to life the films score like never before (which is also included in an isolated score track).
The French Connection II is a slightly less impressive mixture (as is the film itself when compared to the original), but still not bad by any means. There is plenty of detail provided in the shots as well as a fair amount of grain and for a film that is nearly thirty-five years old, this is certainly a solid transfer. The included DTS-HD 5.1 mix is also quite nice, with a solid surround mix from beginning to end. Sound effects do sound a bit dated at times, but, again…expected for an older film.
Extras? Yeah, there’s no shortage of those. Included for the first film:
•NEW HD – William Friedkin Introduction to The French Connection
•Commentary by William Friedkin
•Commentary by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider
•NEW Trivia Track
•NEW Isolated 5.1 Score Track
•NEW D-Box Motion Control
•NEW HD – William Friedkin Discusses Deleted Scenes
•Tailing the Frog
•The Whip Girl
•Devereaux at Work
•Mutchie’s Bar Part 2
•Girl on a Bicycle
•NEW HD Featurette: Anatomy of a Chase
•NEW HD Featurette: Gene Hackman on Popeye Doyle
•NEW HD Featurette: Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection
•NEW HD Featurette: Scene of the Crime
•NEW HD Featurette: Color Timing The French Connection
•NEW HD Featurette: Cop Jazz-The Music of Don Ellis
•NEW HD Featurette: Rogue Cop-The Noir Connection
•BBC Documentary: The Poughkeepsie Shuffle
•Making the Connection: The Untold Stories of The French Connection
As you can see this set is absolutely packed, and quite frankly all of the extras were well worth watching. Between the insights into how the new transfer of the film was made to the original making of the film itself, everything is covered here between the two discs (not to mention the fact a lot of them are in HD also helps one enjoy them). Unfortunately, when we switch over to The French Connection II, it is a lot less impressive:
•Commentary by Director John Frankenheimer
•NEW HD Featurette: Frankenheimer in Focus
•NEW HD Featurette: A Conversation with Gene Hackman
•NEW D-Box Motion Control
•NEW HD Stills Gallery
•NEW Isolated 5.1 Score Track
Of course the list is a lot shorter, but really once you dig into it there’s a pretty decent selection here as well. The commentary alone is worth listening to and the new HD featurettes are a nice surprise as well.
Overall the two films are highly entertaining and well worth watching. If you haven’t checked them out yet, then do yourself a favor and pick put these Blu-ray releases. Perhaps start with the first film to see if you enjoy it and then go ahead and pick up the sequel down the road if you so desire. The sequel isn’t necessarily horrible, but is a definite step down from the original.
The French Connection: Highly Recommended
The French Connection II: Recommended
The French Connection I and II are now available on Blu-ray.
Film review by James Harvey. Blu-ray portion by Zach Demeter.