The Connection

Movies Reviews
The Connection

All of The Connection’s mettle is tested in one scene, which comes smack dab in the middle of its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Up until that point, the film has attempted to be many things: a gangster thriller; a gritty period piece; a character study of the fine line between good and evil; a blatant Scorsese riff; an obvious homage to The French Connection; a solid go at trying to make Jean Dujardin not incredibly dreamy and charming. And to each and every one of these aims, the film devotes much more than cursory attention. Director Cédric Jimenez wants so badly to make something truly epic—something that lays out, sprawled all over its copious plotting with heavy, melodramatic, historical girth—that everything he does is in thrall to proving he’s got the energy and imagination to take on such an ambition. The Connection is a movie with some serious scope.

But back to that scene: The film begins in Marseilles in 1975, and follows the exploits of two men on opposite sides of the law. Up-and-coming good guy Pierre Michel (Dujardin) is appointed to magistrate in the City’s organized crime unit, tasked with sussing out ringleader Gaëtan “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche) and then taking down the mob boss’s American heroin trade (affectionately known as The French Connection, natch). Though they represent two functionally different moralities, these characters have a lot in common. They look the same, gesture in the same ways, both need family to keep them sane, both become increasingly obsessed with the other—they’re bound by the laws of cinema to meet. Which they do, of course, somewhere around the middle parts of The Connection, practically dividing the film in two.

Because so much of the film is building to this point, the scene in The Connection in which its foils finally come face to face is one that could have been an astounding piece of work, a place in which all of the film’s many aspirations and aesthetics could come together and begin to really mature. Set on the edge of the road, on the edge of a cliff with a sunset behind, Michel and Zampa glower menacingly at one another, trying to seem simultaneously casual and intimidating should their vague threats not properly convey the fact that they want to destroy everything their opposite knows and loves. But then the scene just sort of happens—the gangster threatens the cop with a few seriously pathetic warning volleys, and the cop responds by looking like he totally doesn’t give a shit about anything. Zampa declares that he is a “businessman,” and instead of their banter taking on a luscious tint of philosophy towards the reality of good and evil, or towards discussing the role of ethics in the throes of modern capitalism, Michel basically just says that he doesn’t think that’s how being a businessman works. He’s a lawman, after all; he’d know.

The scene turns out to be inconsequential. Afterwards, the men on either side of French law continue to pick away at each other, their rivalry ever-growing, while Michel nearly loses his wife (Céline Sallette) and Zampa has numerous—you know—businesses to run. But it’s impossible to deny that the one scene, handled so unimaginatively, represents a blatantly missed opportunity, demonstrating how effectively tone deaf so much of The Connection is: It bears none of the tension, sublimity or painstakingly composed aesthetic of work made by the directors Jimenez lovingly mimics, or made within the genres Jimenez skirts—the scene is a placeholder, a facsimile of something slightly more vital.

There’s something to be said for The Connection’s handsome swagger, shaking as it does between handheld camera and meticulous, poignant establishing shots. The people in this movie, we’re meant to intuit, are both epochal figures and flawed, deeply human individuals. This is why tears rim Michel’s eyes when he witnesses the aftermath of the so-called Marseilles Massacre; this is why a really gorgeous Max Richter song scores the last time Zampa may ever be able to give his wife (Mélanie Doutey) a kiss as a free man—there’s no way the film’s earned the audience’s sympathy for the villain, a guy who spent the whole film being an intolerably cruel monster of a creature, and watching Michel get worked up over a bunch of dead mobsters feels about as stirring as sitting through an hour of C-SPAN.

So much of The Connection is so similar to the final shot of The Departed, another modern cultural touchpoint Jimenez probably loves: It’s all way too on the nose. Dujardin’s approximation of a beleaguered family man seems well inhabited—believably beleaguered—and the rest of the cast acts as one would expect out of roles required to bear the weight of so much cinematic portent. Everything is in its right place, yet there’s an essential energy missing—the raw, youthful invulnerability of Scorsese’s films, perhaps, or how William Friedken’s urban battleground just looked like the grittiest, scuzziest, most indifferent city on the planet—and The Connection plods along, unable to find its pace, stuck somewhere in the middle of the straightest line between the movie it madly wants to be, and the movie it just sort of is.

Director: Cédric Jimenez
Writer: Audrey Diwan, Cédric Jimenez
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Céline Sallette, Mélanie Doutey
Release Date: May 15, 2015 (limited)

Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.

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