The French Connection II (1975) dir. John Frankenheimer
Starring: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Bernard Fresson
The idea of making a sequel to “The French Connection” set in Marseilles, with Gene Hackman and Fernando Rey reprising their famous roles and directed by action-auteur/innovator John Frankenheimer is fascinating. But it’s no surprise this film has largely been forgotten in the discussion of sequels made from great films. While it expands on Popeye Doyle’s obsessive vulnerabilities and character flaws, it lacks most of the edge, pace and street-wise intensity for it to stand alongside the original classic.
As we remember from the first film ‘Frog #1’ escaped the clutches of Popeye Doyle’s chasing. In the final titles we were told that the real Alan Charnier escaped to France without ever being caught. In this sequel Frankheimer departs from the true-life story and uses Doyle and Charnier strictly as characters based on fiction. We see Doyle arriving in Marseilles and meet up with his French equivalent Barthélémy who has summoned Doyle to assist in their investigation. But immediately Doyle’s treated like second class, and revealed to be no more than a pawn used as bait to entrap Charnier.
Doyle just can’t hide his wild 'Ugly American’ go-for-broke, fuck-the-authorities personality as he quickly rubs the French the wrong way. In one of the most audacious and intense character obstacles I’ve ever seen written into a genre film, Doyle is kidnapped by Charnier and tortured by injecting him with heroin for 12 days in an attempt to get him addicted. Doyle eventually escapes, and after recovering from the ordeal, becomes even more maniacal in his desire to get Charnier. Like an unchained mad dog Doyle torches Charnier’s hotel literally smoking the man out of hiding for a final confrontation.
John Frankenheimer is no hack and, in 1975, had an impressive body of work – a unique mix of artistically-rendered mainstream films. The second act kidnapping scenes have Frankenheimer's distinct touch. We’re reminded of the mind-bending torture Frank Sinatra’s character is exposed to in “The Manchurian Candidate” and even Rock Hudson’s psychedelic headtrips in “Seconds”. Its placement smack in the middle of the second act and its near 15mins running time make it a laborious hump for audiences to cross over. It stops the film dead in it’s tracks unable to recover.
The Marseilles setting was a fresh way for Frankeheimer to distance himself from the original version and create his own vision. Frankenheimer retains Friedkin’s on-location shooting methodology though and even shoots the film with unaware bystanders freely roaming the streets. On a number of occasions we can even see the onlookers blocked off in the background and often catch the odd pedestrian looking right down the barrel of the camera.
Frankenheimer's action and chase sequences are adequate but never come close to topping the original. If “The French Connection II” were not a sequel to the greatest cop flick ever made, then we perhaps would not be as disappointed.
“The French Connection II” released by 20th Century Fox in Blu-Ray contains two commentaries, including one by the late Frankenheimer himself. Frankenheimer’s dialogue is interesting, as he describes his trepidations in filming a sequel to such a successful film and his relationship with Hackman who was one of the driving forces of the sequel.