While some might see it as egotistical or snobbish, European cinema’s confident, too-cool-for-school saunter usually boasts an entrancing demeanor that’s missing from so many timid moving pictures of today. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but that big-dick-swinging bravado is what makes The Connection such a winning crime drama. There’s a reason why Cédric Jimenez’s mafia caper is being compared to William Friedkin’s The French Connection – yup, the French French Connection – and all that praise starts with a true story that’s loaded with emotional drama, confident gangsters, renegade cops and a genuine 70s transformation. No fancy metaphors are needed to explain why this foreign thriller works – The Connection is just damn fine filmmaking.
Jean Dujardin stars in this dangerous cat-and-mouse game as Pierre “The Judge” Michel, an ambitious magistrate whose goal is to bust a local crime lord known for supplying American distributors with clean, hard drugs. Gaëtan ‘Tany’ Zampa (Gilles Lellouche) has lived the lavish life of a rich drug kingpin without much opposition, asserting himself as an underground top-dog, but Michel makes it his mission to dismantle Zampa’s criminal circle once and for all. Like any good cop drama, the farther Michel dives into Zampa’s world, the more truths he uncovers about those around him. Surrounded by lies, corruption and harmful threats, Michel never wavers in the face of such a daunting investigation – but his dedication may cost him everything from a loving family to his very own life.
The Connection is Dujardin’s show to steal, but the fact that he doesn’t speaks louder about the talent surrounding him. I’ll gush about the French performer’s debonair role later, but more impressive is how most of the other characters fall into place throughout Jimenez’s calculated trafficking game. From Céline Sallette’s turn as Pierre’s wife Jacqueline to Benoît Magimel’s presence as one of Zampa’s thugs, the entire ensemble plays their parts with varying levels of humanistic tragedy. There’s no denying that Michel’s chase hits upon beats of intensified fun, but the emotional repercussions of a worsening situation are also felt by all major players, whether in the field or at home. Both the “hero” and the “villain” become relatable in the public eye because their motivations are so eerily similar – it’s just their methods are a little different.
But, as eluded to, Dujardin steals every scene as the workaholic magistrate Pierre Michel. He showcases a tragic ability to swing wildly from places of professional confidence to heartbreaking moments of consequential realizations when Michel sees how the case is affecting his home life (displayed by a phone booth meltdown). Dujardin knocks his role out of the park by balancing a sobering reality of danger with that aforementioned sleek Euro-swagger confidence, as to make sure Michel possesses many more layers than your average investigative lead. There are so many brilliant scenes where his witty interrogation tactics come across as a bit cocky, which provide a few good chuckles, but the obsessive nature of Michel’s want to clean France also translates into a worried wife and domestic drama – a grounding reality that Dujardin clings to tightly. Michel is a fearless wildcard, and a professional juggernaut, but he’s also a vulnerable lead character whose dapper machismo is matched by an underlying fear for those he loves most.
Jimenez’s revisitation of the 70s calls back even further to Wild West times where it was just two gun-slingers against each other, except the 70s had a lot more technological espionage and tailored suits. Nowadays, you’ve got your CSI super-technology and massive online databases, but back in the 70s, most cop work involved bulky binocular stakeouts, wiretaps with a range measured in feet, and a whole lot of running and gunning. Jimenez does right by including all these now outdated – yet nostalgic – procedural techniques, while also hitting upon the time’s coke-driven disco culture. The plot may seem trivial in comparison to other criminal thrillers, sounding like just another “trust no one” drama where rats are always looking for their slice of cheese, but Jimenez elevates The Connection by capturing action, sincere relationships, and a well-balance narrative that follows two men who are so aggressively driven by success – not just a “good versus bad” tug-of-war.
Playing like a reverse The French Connection, Jimenez’s film succeeds by taking the whole illegal picture into consideration. Even millionaire criminals have a warm heart and a meaningful home life – one “weakness” Zampa reveals when he opens a failing nightclub just to please his wife – but this builds a similar connection between Michel and his on-paper adversary. The inclusion of family lovin’ puts more skin in the game for both men, and in turn, the tension mounts when bullets start flying. These men have more to lose than just their lives (be it a prison sentence or death), which begs the question of how far do you push? Sure, Michel could turn France into a gang-free utopia, but would that be worth the life of his wife or children if Zampa’s thugs decided to send a message?
The Connection is more than your typical shoot-em-up police thriller because there’s an actual strive to make characters human and consequences dire. It’s running time does balloon a bit, but Jimenez’s film stands one of the better criminal dramas to emerge in the past few years, and it doesn’t even do things drastically different – it just does them right.