There’s a scene early on in Cedric Jimenez’s “The Connection” that shows the fateful, tone-setting first meeting between dedicated magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) and his quarry, Gaetan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), the oft-whispered about kingpin behind the legendary heroin trafficking route, The French Connection.
The scene shows individuals of different dispositions– Dujardin comports himself with a lack of bravado. He is a man absolutely comfortable in the idea that he has chosen the right side in a war that will wage so long it will forget he was a part of it. Lellouche’s Zampa is of another stripe– he used to feel untouchable, but now Michel seems to have his number. We see him transforming into a cornered animal ready to gnaw his arm off. Zampa isn’t a character who deserves sympathy, and it’s to Lellouche’s credit that his desperation feels palpable. This moment and how / where it’s driving the climax is the beating heart of the film.
It is also worth noting that Zampa and Michel are both cramped by the same bureaucracy despite being on opposite sides of the law. Their circumstances are frustratingly dictated by people who live in the shadows pulling the strings. Despite how clearly diametrically opposed they are in nature, the film sees fit to give them a kinship, just not one based on mutual respect. Michel and Zampa are contemptuous of one another, but there is a certain tragic, inevitable sameness to their arcs.
The futility of their being good at their jobs is reflected in a couple of minor characters: a young cop named Alvarez schools Michel about the corruption around him. He recounts his own failed struggles to shake himself of his “brothers” who allow a man like Gaetan Zampa to continue to thrive. Knowing this information should give Michel pause, but he never stops to consider it. Perhaps hubris is the shared gift that sends both men forward in constant conflict?
There is also the rival dealer named Crazy Horse (Benoit Magimel). He could’ve been a character whose sole intent was to show just how ruthless Zampa is when you screw with his business– he is shot seven times, but keeps coming back for revenge. The moral of his story is that there’s always someone waiting to take you out of the equation.
Indeed, for the two main characters, there is always a wall blocking their progress. It’s no accident that the film is often about dead ends. That’s all the mythical French Connection ever was until Michel got a hold of the case and, frankly, isn’t that mostly what the war on drugs ever has been? A never-ending, self-replenishing maze full of sparks and then dead ends?
“The Connection” is essentially a two-man show with Lellouche and Dujardin bearing all the weight. It’s well acted by all involved but most of the cast are tools to serve the leads, so they don’t come across as much more than types. But it doesn’t stop them from helping to drive the film’s themes and actions forward.
“The Connection” uses a sprawling canvas to paint on and director Cedric Jimenez certainly crafts a number of gorgeous, sweeping, suspenseful sequences, yet the film remains tightly focused for much of its run time. It etches an unforgettable portrait of clashing personalities that are smaller, but more complex, than the war they fight. That would seem to be a notion that’s always true, but the ending of this film seems to hammer that point home with more force than most films do.
“The Connection” is now in wide release.