Believe it or not, there was a time when an action film could be an art form. Today, most movies in the genre are geared solely at defying gravity and offering mindless escapism. Take The Transporter franchise, for instance. How many mid-air rolls can a car do while still landing upright and driving away. These films can be good fun but they’re ultimately disposable and, for the most part, forgettable. Now take William Friedkin’s The French Connection. Grounded in a gritty reality – and shot as such – it’s still an action classic today that offers adrenaline-fueled pacing without insulting one’s intelligence.
Gene Hackman stars as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a rough and gruff New York detective who likes getting his way, whether it’s with the people he’s chasing or those who he works with. His insistence on being the man has created a checkered legacy. Alongside his partner Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), Popeye stumbles upon an international drug smuggling ring, albeit one that exists in his gut with very little evidence. As a result, Popeye is met with little support unless he finds a little more proof outside of instinct.
Unlike a lot of action films, The French Connection plays it straight. With a shaky camera, an intense soundtrack and some excellent cinematogrphy, Friedkin gets right into the sequences. He creates a gritty reality that is both exhilarating and dizzying. Although it’s nearly four decades since its release, the major chase scene still holds up as a benchmark in these digital times. The French Connection provides a strong argument for how good directors can provide good, believable action without having to go wild on the effects.
Further adding to the realistic approach is the fact that the film is somewhat fragmented. Friedkin takes an approach that provides a bit of the background on Popeye, the force and the drug cartel, but it’s more of an impressionist approach. There’s plenty of hints and you know where he’s getting at much of the time, but Friedkin also leaves some ambiguity. The French Connection is a story set in the present, much like a condensed season of TV’s 24. Therefore it doesn’t require fancy storytelling techniques. It can be told with a straightforward approach. While this might sound simplistic, Friedkin does a masterful job of negotiating through the essential and the expendable details.
The French Connection is a rare film that mixes action with strong storytelling. While there are a few others out there, the mindless far outnumber the thoughtful. It is a groundbreaking film that offers plenty of tense thrills and the perfect balance of everything else.
The French Connection Blu-ray Review
The grittiness of The French Connection is maintained with the film’s excellent Blu-ray release. The movie is shown in high definition widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio) with an English DTS-HD audio track serving the primary sound choice. There’s also 5/1 Dolby Surround tracks in English, French and Spanish, as well as an English mono track. Subtitles are optional in English, Spanish, Cantonese and Mandarin.
Director William Friedkin is on hand to provide an all-new introduction to the feature, as well as a commentary track that’s very smooth. Friedkin discusses both the making of the film and the historical context in which it was set. Stars Gene Hackman and the late Roy Scheider give a second commentary track. This one is not nearly as engrossing as it follows largely an experiential path. Additional viewing options include an isolated musical score and a trivia option that pops up throughout the film. The disc is also D-Box enabled.
The release’s second disc contains a bevy of featurettes and intriguing bonus features. They begin with seven deleted scenes with optional commentary from Friedkin. “Anatomy of a Case” is a 20-minute breakdown of the famous chase scene with the director going back to the location in which it was filmed. “Hackman on Doyle” runs 10 minutes and features recent comments and observations from the actor about his character. “Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection” has the filmmaker speak with one of the agents involved with the original case in which the film is based. Additional featurettes look at locations, the soundtrack, color timing, the making of the film and its connection to film noir. Finally, there’s a 53-minute BBC documentary called “The Pughkeepsie Shuffle,” which looks extensively at the original case.
The French Connection Gallery