“The true force of an untouchable is the silence he imposes on others”
While everything out there talking about Cédric Jimenez’s La French [The Connection] takes special care to mention William Friedkin‘s classic The French Connection, the comparisons end at that titular focal point. I’m not talking about quality, though, as this unofficial companion is a very good piece of cinema. It’s just not an action thriller like the American rendition made in the thick of heroin’s 1970s heyday. Instead Jimenez and co-writer Audrey Diwan have crafted a straight mob drama pitting newly assigned magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) against the kingpin at the top of the drug pyramid with pure, uncut product, Gaëtan “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche). Also based on a true story, this saga spans multiple years, conspiracies, and betrayals until a handpicked band of clean cops form to slowly chip away at the global syndicate’s “untouchable” leader.
The era hits us with all the polish Freidkin’s Oscar winner couldn’t afford nor be provided by 70s technology and it’s a gorgeous work shot by Laurent Tangy as a result. Beyond aesthetics, however, is also an intricate plot that unravels matter-of-factly while hiding a couple new mysteries along the way. In fact, everything we’re shown in the first half is turned on its head during the second with a change of guard at the police station. Allies are revealed as adversaries, heroes and villains shown as addicts of ambition while in remission from their more volatile vices, and the position of authority completely altered from our two leads to those stuck in the middle with backs against the wall. Such developments leave the endgame intriguing even if everything eventual unfolds honestly and exactly as it must.
Pacing drags at times due to the sheer scope of what’s happening, but it’s never boring. It helps that the filmmakers paint Zampa in a light of respect despite his crimes. The guy’s a monster that kills with impunity while sneering at those who get in his way—which aren’t many considering he has people on the payroll everywhere—but he’s also a businessman with a wife (Mélanie Doutey), kids, and friends he considers brothers. There’s also a quasi sense of mutual respect in as far as doing something to Michel or his family will only make life harder. They’re pitted together in a chess match rather than the in-the-moment checkers game between Popeye Doyle and Alain Charnier. Michel’s systematic takedown of Zampa’s crew proves a lengthy marathon with ample time for complications and adjustments.
A sprawling cast keeps things interesting with dissension on both sides whether an overly ambitious would-be crime boss (Benoît Magimel‘s Crazy Horse) wreaking havoc or corrupt police officers cashing in (the so-called Corsican Cops). Zampa and Michel deal with these issues differently considering their relationship with the law and they even have a tendency of using the other to achieve their goals quieter and with ease. Idle threats turn into arrests that morph into a mounting body count of revenge kills and the reaping of untrustworthy associates. Michel risks losing his wife (Céline Sallette) in the process while Zampa does so much to keep his happy that he puts himself at the brink of bankruptcy. The two are virtually identical—good versus bad looking through a mirror. They only meet once, but it’s a great mid-point convergence.
You’ve seen all the details before in countless other cops versus mobster dramas and the French Connection aspect merely sets the stage of its chaotically violent crescendo in late-70s France. If you’re expecting a car chase like Friedkin’s you will be disappointed as The Connection is much more procedural than that. We’re following the trajectories of two men on a fateful collision course, not an antihero playing fast and loose with the rules to prove himself in his own eyes. There are definite missteps taken and Michel isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty if it means Zampa takes a hit, but he isn’t the one with a gun kicking down doors. He’s as much a kingpin as the man he hunts, both moving pieces on the board to wrestle away control of the streets.
For his part, Dujardin excels at playing serious despite being known for his goofy charisma a la The Artist. That trademarked charm comes out with a few smiles here and there, but he’s dialed in for war the majority of the time. Watching him stand up to Lellouche’s formidable Zampa never feels forced and neither do the many run-ins with those on his side, temper flared. You can’t blame Michel for this tenacity since he began his career working with juveniles whose lives were destroyed by heroin first-hand, but at a certain point he has to get back on the wagon and realize family matters most. A fantastic revelation is that Zampa does know this. His means to that end just aren’t on the moral path to salvation. And both get dragged to the point of no return.
The supporting cast fleshes out the period piece with Cyril Lecomte‘s entertainingly flashy Marco Da Costa, Guillaume Gouix‘s struggling detective swimming with sharks, and Pauline Burlet‘s cornered Lily unable to break heroin’s hold. Good men like Patrick Descamps prosecutor must step back when Michel brings trouble too close to their door while corrupt men like Féodor Atkine‘s Deferre evolve as their position of power rises. Everyone’s ultimately out for himself without exception and very few if any exit this battle unscathed. You can’t really ask for more out of a crime epic—keep it gritty, dangerous, and above all else excise any potential for happy endings. Because even if the head of the snake is removed, another will take its place. And the time and energy spent to land that deathblow always comes at a price.
 Detective Pierre Michel (Oscar® Winner Jean Dujardin) in Drafthouse Films’ crime thriller The Connection. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films.
 Judge Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) and Lucien Aimé-Blanc (Bernard Blancan) inspect the scene in Drafthouse Films’ The Connection. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films.
 Judge Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) and José Alvarez (Guillaume Gouix) arrest Marco Da Costa (Cyril Lecomte) in Drafthouse Films’ The Connection. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films.