A movie about bringing down druglords that's actually mostly about movies, Cédric Jimenez's The Connection is stretched over driven-cop beats so familiar American audiences could probably follow it without subtitles. (It's in French — add that to the title, and you get a sense of its police-film ambitions.) It's a fleet, engrossing, familiar drama, a movie that's forever moving: along Marseille's winding coastal highways, through throbbing mobs of extras at its Seventies discotheques, down the corridors of a hospital on a gurney with the bloody victim of a hit.
The movie is as dense and quick as that follow-the-money montage in Scorsese's Casino. You're likely to wonder, "They cast and lit a dozen exquisite clubgoers in a mirrored VIP room just for this four-second sliver?" At times, in the early going, The Connection feels like an extended "Previously on..." segment from some especially well-made and long-running prestige cable series. Everything's shorthand, rapid, ostentatiously lavish — and often impressive, despite not transcending the crime stories it echoes. The shame of that: This one honors a real lawman's struggle and sacrifice, even as the film itself feels like gangland play.
Jean Dujardin plays a newly appointed magistrate trying to crack open the heroin trade in Marseille in the '70s — yes, the French Connection. Director Jimenez, perversely, doesn't bother with a car chase, but he otherwise can't resist Hollywood familiarity: One montage actually involves the pages of a daily desk calendar to show us time is passing, and a scene of a femme fatale facing her fate is scored to the chanteuse Sheila's original French take on "Bang Bang," the song that kicks off Kill Bill.
Pierre Michel, Dujardin's magistrate, is of course the only uncorruptible lawman in Marseille. His white whale is Gaëtan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), a heroin kingpin given to the motivational slapping of underlings. The acting is serious and manly, sometimes suggesting what Nic Cage has been going for in recent years; the druglord, dedicated to his own ethical code, erupts into violence without warning but is also prone to swoons and tenderness: "Take care of their funerals," he says when some subordinates get offed. He adds: "nicest wreaths possible."
Dujardin competes in the Cage-off, too, suffering a screamo breakdown in a phone booth. These moments of high emotion might resonate more if we spent time with these characters, if the film weren't always hustling us on to the next bit, if those bits weren't so familiar: When magistrate and druglord meet midfilm, on an open road atop a mountain, they have one of those fraught Heat-like conversations where they both pretend to be casual. "Best not to meet again," Zampa says, a blob of late-afternooon sun hanging between them. Michel asks, "Best for who?
Zampa laughs, of course, admiring his adversary. It's a miracle we're spared a "We're not so different, you and I" speech. One cliché we're not spared: rote scenes of Michel's family, led by wife Jacqueline (Céline Sallette), feeling neglected and letting him know it. As usual in the movies, the concerned spouse is right to worry over the hero's obsessive and dangerous dedication to duty. And, as usual, narrative momentum sets the audience against her — Michel calls her "selfish" for fearing that their family might get killed, and even though we might agree with her in real life, we're put in the same no-win position we were in Goodfellas or Donnie Brasco: Can we get back to the crime story, please?
That suggests that, at least while they're onscreen, obsessive movie heroes diminish our humanity. Michel has kids, but The Connection mostly trots out family to lend incidental suspense to a scene: Children dash through a bit of tense negotiation, setting the adults on edge; later, Michel's daughter plays the electric-shock surgery game Operation at a time when her father is trying to perform feats of steady-hand nerve without getting jolted. The film is engaging, propulsive, cut with rare brio, chockablock with consummate tough-guy business. Each moment's upshot is always clear despite the seeming complexity of the plotting, which means it might be championed by some as an exercise in "pure cinema" or whatever. It might be that — it's certainly effective, especially at the queasy suspense of an honest family besieged by the cruelest of men. Or that clarity might be because you've seen all of this before, many times, and you can feel what's coming before it comes, the same way the first time you hear a pop song crafted from familiar pieces you can sing the chorus the first time it hits.