When it comes to watching movies based on historical events, occasionally you happen, by varying degrees of coincidence, into a narrative between multiple films all based on historical events that all tie together. Sometimes it’s deliberate, with different filmmakers being in dialog with each other, and sometimes it’s happenstance, and sometimes it’s even a combination of the two. The Connection from 2014 (released in France as La French) is something of a combination of the two, being in dialog with the 1971 film The French Connection, but also referencing the events covered in Ridley Scott’s film American Gangster, and in turn making Hoodlum something of a prologue.
The film follows real historical figure Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin), a French judge, formerly attached to Juvenile Court who is transferred to the Organized Crime where he is tasked with helping to bring down a heroin smuggling operation known as “La French”, currently run by Gaëtan “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche). Michel has his own familiarity with the operation, as the heroin that the organization produces also is on the streets of Marseilles and some of the addicts had come through his Juvenile court. However, the French Police have difficulty putting any sort of case together, due to their inability to get anyone to testify, and to corruption within the police.
Michel takes a more aggressive approach to bring down Le French, rounding up as many of the underlings as they can get charges to stick on, just to make it more difficult for any subordinates to be willing to work with the organization. At the same time, Zampa is also facing a financial pinch in the US – less expensive heroin is starting to hit the market, some coming from Asia through dealers in Harlem (Nickey Barnes’ operation), among other sources (drugs from earlier busts made by the NYPD being sold by police within the NYPD at reduced prices because they don’t have to smuggle the heroin base from Turkey and then process it into heroin, with various people needing to take their cut along the way. This, in turn, leads to division among Zampa’s own gang.
Unfortunately, a lot of that larger context is not present in the film – Barnes’s operation is mentioned in passing, but also is dismissed by Zampa with an array of racial slurs. I can understand not wanting to drag the film down with Big Picture exposition, but considering at several points we have Michel working in concert with the American DEA, it would have been nice to have some of this laid out. We know by the end of the film that Zampa, financially, has gone from being stupid rich to barely scraping by, and the film gives the implication that this is strictly due to Michel’s actions – which is one part of a larger picture, sure, but not the entirety. It’s like the director wanted to keep the focus on the French side of things and make it a big French victory that the Americans may have helped with a little.
It’s one thing when Zampa’s contacts with the Mafia bring up Black dealers selling Asian heroin at reduced prices and Zampa responds by laughing it off with racial slurs. It’s like in The Long Good Friday, where Shand (Bob Hoskins) mocks and derides the Mafia visitors due to their reluctance to deal with him over the spectacular violence being deployed against him by the IRA, with tons of macho bluster, because organized crime is absolutely jam-packed with toxic masculinity. Except, in The Long Good Friday, we get the follow-up from that, with Shand leaving the meeting, getting into a car with his chauffeur, and discovering that his chauffeur is gone, probably dead, and he’s now a prisoner of the IRA. We get no equivalent to that – which would probably be something like Zampa being forced to agree to lower and lower prices for his drugs because he’s tied to the American market in general (and New York in particular), so he finds himself trapped, and with this contending with an organization who is not happy with their bosses reduced returns, combined with increasing heat from Michel.
Otherwise, Michel ultimately starts using illegal tactics to bring down Zampa’s organization, mainly illegal wiretaps – and while it’s commented on, it’s all in this nebulous sense of the ends justifying the means. By contrast with the 1971 film The French Connection, Popeye Doyle is a racist who roughs up informants and shoots fleeing suspects in the back, and he’s also played as someone where our takeaway as the audience is that he’s an absolute sack of shit. He’s shown as getting results, but also that as a viewer we want absolutely nothing to do with him. With Michel, he’s shown throughout The Connection as a hardworking family man who has seen the toll that heroin has taken on the streets and people of Marseilles, and he’s just trying to do the right thing. I understand why there might be a reluctance to question him too aggressively, considering the fate of the historical figure (which is depicted in the movie), but that doesn’t mean I don’t have cause to grumble in my seat as I watch this movie in 2022.
In all, it makes for a very myopic film, in ways that, for example, American Gangster wasn’t. I am glad I watched this film, but I think you would get much more out of The Connection when watched after The French Connection and American Gangster, as a triple-feature.
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