Jean Dujardin in The Connection (Drafthouse Films)

Jean Dujardin in The Connection (Drafthouse Films)

Written and Directed by Cédric Jimenez
Produced by Alain Goldman
Released by Drafthouse Films
French with English subtitles
France. 135 min. Rated R
With Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Céline Sallette, and Benoît Magimel

The Connection, a ’70s-era crime-thriller, opens with a bike chase sequence along the coastal highway of Marseille. From the start, director Cédric Jimenez is closing the book on The French Connection, a movie that once stunned viewers with a particularly awe-inspiring automobile chase. Here, with its fluid POV camerawork, there is a wink to that original film, directed by William Friedkin. But aside from the opening, The Connection is a compelling feast of a drug caper that manages to carry its own dramatic punch.

The story is pinned to two characters: Pierre Michel (The Artist’s Jean Dujardin) and Gaetan Zamba (Gilles Lellouche). Michel is a juvenile-court official who receives a promotion to city magistrate. His main task is to track down and halt the largest illegal drug operation in both France and the United States, popularly known as the French Connection. Zamba is its kingpin, running a sleek and shrouded operation. He cuts his deals in secrecy and with a quick temper that vanquishes those who question, or worse, double-cross him.

The two men are real-life figures, and much of The Connection’s narrative is taken directly from newspaper headlines. But this reliance on fact does not mitigate the movie’s well-moderated suspense. A very fluid camera invites us into Michel and Zamba’s lives for nearly every minute of the film. The supporting characters (and their names) are a little hard to follow, but it’s apparent that Michel and Zamba are two sides to the same coin. Much like Batman and the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight or Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Michael Mann’s Heat, there is a subtle sense of destiny for these apparent opposites. Neither will go down without a fight.

Michel, having witnessed the sad fate of drugs on its victims firsthand, is ruthlessly obsessed with taking Zamba down. But his pursuit (along with the psychological remnants of a previous gambling addiction) nearly tears his family apart. Zamba, a charismatic brute of a figure with loyal friends, rules his discothèque kingdom with an iron fist. It remains up to Michel and his task force to decide what lengths they must go to shut down what seemingly cannot be stopped.

As a period piece, the film looks incredible, thanks to montage sequences that use actual news segments from the era and a very fine and accurate set design. Along with Argo and David Fincher’s Zodiac, The Connection is an impressive feat for its art direction.

Additionally, there is an intense realism to the film, and it’s anchored by Dujardin’s performance, which is one of the best this year. Michel is an endearing figure truly possessed by a need to end Zamba’s reign. It’s fascinating watching those traits, which drive Michel to succeed and transform into something more detrimental.

I started this review by referencing a previous film, and I’d like to return to the topic of genre. I presume many will see fixtures here, stereotypes and tropes that are old hat. While Jimenez’s treatment of genre has clear and obvious notes, it also possesses a great zeal and understanding for character, presented with an invigorating sense of newness.

It is easy to serialize these stories of drug cartels and cops going over the edge and tempting to inevitably reduce this stuff to formulaic melodrama. In fact, most of these crime stories are conveniently delivered and packaged for a TV set. But they lack the acute vision and energy of a director like Jimenez. Thankfully The Connection, like its predecessor, is awe-inspiring.