French Connection II: Gene Hackman brilliantly reprises ‘Popeye’ Doyle in this terrific sequel that takes the iconic character in an interesting direction

French Connection II(1975) has Gene Hackman reprising the role of Popeye Doyle from the Oscar winning 1971 prequel, The French Connection. This film, directed by the great action film maestro, John Frankenheimer, is a more polished and melodramatic film which is not as viscerally powerful as the original, but expands on that film in interesting ways.

Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) is back; dressed in his trademark porkpie hat, cheap suit & tie, with his badass attitude, finger-pointing arrogance and high-octane energy intact, but this time around he has been uprooted from his stomping ground, New York City, and placed squarely in the middle of Marseille- the lion’s den, i.e.. villain Charnier’s (Fernando Rey) territory. So we have a total role reversal, with the cold hunter now a fish-out-of-water lost in enemy territory where his nemesis has the upper hand. But things are about to get even worse for Popeye: officially, Popeye is sent to Marseilles as the only man who can certifiably recognize Charnier, and to liaise with the local detective chief Henri Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), but the fact of the matter is he’s actually been sent to lure Charnier out; to be used as bait by the French police to lead them to Charnier’s drug labs. But there’s another, sinister motive on the part of his corrupt superiors (whom Charnier had bought off) for sending Popeye out on this mission: he’s being set up to be killed in the line of duty. Poor Popeye is oblivious of any of these sinister intentions of his superiors. When the film opens it’s been two years since the events of The French Connection(1971), and 42 year old ‘Popeye’ Doyle is seen arriving in Marseille on April fool’s day. There it’s a custom to pin a paper fish on anybody’s back on April fool’s day, but this time it looks like the the whole Marseille police department has fish stuck on their back: when Popeye arrives, the whole police force, including chief Barthélémy, is combing the fish markets; they’re busy cutting and opening fishes looking for potential drugs. Obviously, they have been fooled. There’s no drugs to be found. This is a nice introduction for Popeye to what he’s up against. Add to that, Barthélémy and his fellow officers treats Popeye with dismissive contempt (mainly because Popeye is notorious for being a cop-killer) and relegates him to a desk next to the men’s-room door. Alienated by Barthélémy, Popeye goes it alone, stalking the streets day and night for Charnier. One night, after chatting up a beach volleyball player (Reine Prat) and being spied doing so by Charnier, he’s kidnapped by Charnier’s thugs. Charnier has Popeye kept prisoner in a seamy hotel filled with drug addicts and prostitutes, and pumped full of regular doses of heroin for three weeks. This is not only an act of vengeance on the part of Charnier – for messing up the New York dope deal, but also an attempt to uncover Popeye’s plans in Marseille.

Finally, when Charnier is convinced that Popeye knows nothing of his operations in Marseille, Popeye is given a hot dose and dumped outside the police station. Barthélémy and his men quickly find Doyle and attend to his emergency circumstances by pumping his stomach and giving him cardiac arrest treatment. From here on, It’s a long, grueling process of rehabilitation for Popeye, but somehow Popeye manages to recover with his health and sanity intact. A chastened Popeye also deduces the real reasons why he was sent to Marseille by his superiors. Once he recovers, Popeye is back on the streets. Now twice the obsessed hunter he was before, he successfully manages to locate the hotel in which he was held captive;. Burning with rage, he pours petrol all over and sets the hotel on fire; and flushes Charnier’s goons out like rats. Popeye also manages to get a lead on Charnier’s new drug deal. He and Barthélémy join hands to bust Charnier’s drug deal going down at the docks, but Charnier’s new number one henchman, Jacques (Philippe Leotard) lets seawater into the dry dock and pretty much drowns them. Popeye somehow makes it out of there alive, and also saves Barthélémy’s life in the process . But now Popeye’s actions have become too outsized for the French police, and they want him out, and back in New York. Here Barthélémy comes to his rescue, and allow him to stay till Charnier is apprehended. Popeye, Barthélémy and his men mount an all out attack on Charnier’s drug labs, and a fierce battle ensues between the cops and Charnier’s goons- in which many cops and criminals, including Jacques is killed. Meanwhile, Popeye chases Charnier on foot through the city. The long, exhausting chase culminates on the docks, where Popeye almost looses Charnier, only to turn the tables on his nemesis at the last moment and emerge victorious.

French Connection II is directed by the great Action director John Frankenheimer- who has helmed such classics like “The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Train” and “Grand Prix”. While this film does not have the pace, vitality, tight plotting and the cold docudrama like verisimilitude of the Oscar winning prequel directed by William Friedkin, Frankenheimer takes the film into a more melodramatic territory with a character-driven narrative that eschews conventional plot mechanisms. Friedkin’s original was based on Robin Moore’s book, and hence had a very tight plot to work around, but here Frankenheimer adopts an European art film approach, with the narrative simply following the lead character through a series of adventures and misadventures in France. Which means that this film is not as entertaining as the prequel- “The French Connection” was one continuous, tension filled action shot from beginning to the end. The three acts that make up the film appears disjointed, with each appearing totally different from one another in tone and pace. It also doesn’t help that in the whole second act of the film, Popeye is reduced to a vegetative state- first inside Charnier’s seedy hotel and then his ‘cold turkey’ phase. No wonder this sequel did not achieve the critical or commercial success of its predecessor.

In the first act too, Popeye is not the cold, confident hunter we saw in the prequel- he’s a fish out of water trying to find his way in an alien country: he is shown cruising around Marseilles looking for girls at bars and chatting with bartenders, all the while struggling with the fact that he cannot speak French and no one he encounters can speak English either. This trope of ‘cop in an alien land’ is sometimes well used to bring out the cultural barrier that Popeye faces and his own NYC cop prejudices. In an early scene in the film where Popeye accompanies Barthélémy on a raid in the city slums, he mistakes an undercover cop for a criminal simply because of his skin color. He chases the guy down and blows his cover, leading to the cop’s death. Other times, like in that extended gag in a bar where Popeye chats up the bartender and tries to pickup a couple of French girls, it is used to generate some laughs which falls flat after a point. We have to wait till the last act to see Popeye unleash himself with all force. This narrative strategy flies in the face of convention wisdom regarding franchise filmmaking where, in sequels, the filmmakers simply recycles more effectively what worked so well in the original. Frankenheimer had to be commended for taking the film into an interesting direction- and not making the same film again- but the direction he took was not a commercially rewarding one. And at the time of making this film, Frankenheimer was in desperate need of a commercial hit. Since his heydays in the 1960s, his stock had fallen considerably after he delivered a string of flops in late 60s and 70s. The only reason he was chosen to direct this film was because he was living in Paris.

Frankenheimer, who started out in ‘Live television’ as one of the most technically innovative directors, throws all his visual ingenuity into making this picture: among his innovations for the film include providing the visuals with a sense of first person POV, which is most effective in the climactic foot chase. We feel Popeye’s exhaustion and delirium as he chases Charnier through the streets of Marseille. Many times in the lengthy sequence, the camera takes Popeye’s place as he jumps through barricades and lunges through doors of picket fences. The soundtrack is also designed in such a way that we can feel his out-of-breath state. Frankenheimer also manages to capture the same decaying sense of a city- that Friedkin captured with the first film- with picturesque depiction of labyrinthine, impoverished slums lurking under the glossy, modern buildings of the harbor-town. What he fails to provide is an iconic action sequence to match the terrific Car-elevator train chase in the first one. Frankenheimer hopes to compensate for that with the two elaborately staged action sequences in the film: one set on the docks where Popeye almost drowns in seawater; and the final foot chase. And though neither of them comes close to the brilliance of the car-chase, at least the foot chase in this film illuminates both plot and character as the car-chase did. It more than emphasizes the brutally obsessive nature of Popeye’s character, as well as the quixotic nature of Popeye’s mission- all that running and exhaustion for almost nothing; that’s until Popeye manages to turn the tables at the last moment. For an extended period of time in the climax, we fear that Popeye has once again lost Charnier as he did at the end of the prequel, but then Charnier, who has almost outfoxed Popeye yet again by escaping in a yacht, has underestimated the doggedness of the NY Detective. He stupidly (or rather overconfidently) walks out of the yacht at the exact moment when Popeye spots him out and puts a couple of bullets into him- with Frankenheimer cutting directly to black. This denouement is rather predictable and you can see it coming- because you cannot have the villain outfox the hero twice; but Frankenheimer still makes it suspenseful, surprising and even shocking with the abruptness with which the action unfolds and the screen fades to black.

Since French Connection II is totally concerned with following Popeye’s journey to hell and back, it almost becomes a Gene Hackman one-man-show. More so since this film does not have Roy Scheider’s “Cloudy” to partner him up. Hackman had most deservedly won the Best Actor Oscar for his fantastic performance in the first film, but he’s even better here. And I rate this performance on par with his performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation”- which I think is Hackman’s best performance. This performance has both the dynamism of the first French Connection and the meditativeness of “The Conversation.” Popeye is crude, arrogant, racist and socially inept, and he responds to any form of challenge with brutal violence. Hackman, who was a liberal in real life, hated this character, but he turned out to be best guy to embody this anti-hero. Obviously, Hackman is really good in those high voltage scenes, but he’s even better in the lengthy second act, where he’s drugged and later detoxed. These are some of the ugliest, raw and brutal scenes ever put into a mainstream action film, and it’s guaranteed to exhaust and turn off a lay viewer, but it does offer Hackman a platform to give a bravura acting performance: a seven-minute monologue that Hackman’s Popeye delivers in front of Fresson’s Barthélémy during which Popeye tries to explain his interest in baseball and its arcane culture, including his early encounter with the legendary Mickey Mantle, to the bewildered French policeman is a tour de force of screen acting. The scene is both exceedingly funny and chilling, as Popeye tries to demonstrate baseball moves with chicken drumstick and orange to a man who has no idea about the game. Another great scene is where Popeye’s alternatively aggressive and controlled while demanding a Hershey’s bar. It’s a pity that Hackman missed out on an Oscar nomination for this film. The film may have its faults, but Hackman is simply flawless. Fernando Rey is also back as the smooth, dapper villain Charnier, who has an extraordinary ability to generate menace and ruthlessness with very subtle shifts in his expressions and body language. In this film, we see him for the ruthless bad guy that he is, as opposed to the first film where he was too much of a sophisticated gentleman.

French Connection II came out four years after the first film, but it failed to duplicate the prequel’s success. Though the film recouped its investments and turned it in a small profit, the film was deemed a failure- to the extend that it has been completely forgotten and very few people even know that there was a sequel to “The French Connection.” Frankenheimer’s career did not get the boost that he had hoped for when he took up this film, and his career would continue to decline through the 80s and 90s. Frankenheimer and Hackman did not have a happy working relationship on this film. They were constantly at each other’s throats. Hackman was suffering from a knee injury at the time which was aggravated by all the stunts he had to do for the film- the pain and anguish he displays in the climax is genuine, and h he did it without using a body-double. There was talks of a third French Connection film in which Hackman was to paired with Richard Pryor, but that was abandoned due to the lukewarm reception to this film, as well as Hackman’s unwillingness to reprise the role.

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