The French Connection II

(1975) *** R
118 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: John Frankenheimer. Cast: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Bernard Fresson, Jean-Pierre Castaldi, Charles Millot.

/content/films/3353/2.jpgThe French Connection II is more conventional than its predecessor, but it's still unconventional by the cop thriller standard set by a wash of anonymous, lesser films. If Friedkin's original was a classic, John Frankenheimer's on-assignment sequel is merely darn good, which is good enough considering what passes for a police thriller these days.

Gene Hackman returns to his Oscar-winning role of Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, still obsessively pursuing "the French connection" to the New York drug trade: Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Doyle has taken his show on the road to Marseilles, where the smug Charnier has settled back into organizing massive heroin deals with the likes of Brigadier General William Brian (Ed Lauter) from Washington D.C. Roy Scheider's Buddy Russo must've stayed at home, leaving a lone Doyle in the hands of dry-witted Inspector Henri Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson). Doyle's tunnel vision prevents him from seeing he's being dangled as bait by his New York and French keepers. Captured by Charnier, Doyle is shot up with heroin until he becomes a junkie, which seriously complicates his not-so-well-laid plan to bring Charnier to justice. (Also returning for the sequel: Don Ellis, who contributes another experimental jazz score).

Much of the conflict comes from Barthélémy, who's all too aware of Doyle's five kills, two of them cops, in his fourteen years on the job. The bullish Doyle doesn't care what anyone thinks of him: "I'd rather be a lamppost in New York than the president of France, but I came over here for one thing and one thing only: that's to get Charnier, and that's what I'm going to do." Screenwriters Alexander Jacobs and Robert Dillon & Laurie Dillon understand their jobs: to feature Hackman with juicy material while providing a couple of opportunities for first-rate action. Hackman digs in to the heroin withdrawal sequences, depicting the violent DTs and tough-love bonding with the now-sympathetic Barthélémy. Doyle's frustrated attempt to monologue about baseball--fruitlessly name-checking Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Whitey Ford--turns out to be as weirdly touching as it is funny.

It's the key element of the story: Doyle as stranger in a strange land, facing both a language barrier and a cultural one. In France, Doyle is literally and figuratively disarmed (though possession of a firearm is illegal, Doyle gets his hands on more than one). He's unable to pick up girls, much less order his drink of choice, and his interrogation technique of confusing perps with signature line "You ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?" turns around into a personal hell when he tries to interrogate a French suspect without a shared language. Frankenheimer reliably delivers expert location work in the well-known territory of Marseilles and rigorous action, including foot chases, a blazing fire, and a waterfront shootout incorporating Doyle and Barthélémy trapped at the bottom of a flooding dry dock.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 1.0

Street date: 2/24/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Fox gives The French Connection II not only its Blu-ray debut, but its standalone debut on disc, having previously been packaged only with its prequel. Along with a very handsome transfer that makes the 1975 film look freshly minted (without sacrificing film grain), and definitive audio presentations (choice of DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio or original mono), John Frankenheimer's film comes with a surprisingly satisfying collection of bonus features.

There's a boffo commentary by director John Frankenheimer, always a professional with fascinating details to share, as well as a commentary by Gene Hackman and producer Robert Rosen.

The brand-new doc "Frankenheimer: In Focus" (25:13, HD) is a career-spanning tribute to Frankenheimer that also puts a bit of extra focus on French Connection II by including interviews with William Friedkin, editor Tom Rolf, actor Ed Lauter, and sound recordist Bernard Bats. Other participants include wife Evans Frankenheimer, daughter Kristi Frankenheimer, Bruce Dern, production designer Michael Hanan, producer Frank Mancuso Jr. and director of photography Robert Fraisse.

Next up is the entertaining "A Conversation with Gene Hackman" (7:06, HD). Also included are Still Galleries, Isolated Score Track in DTS MA, and "Theatrical Trailers" (3:15 each, HD) in multiple languages.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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