The movies that I tend to find interesting are rarely the kind of movies that win for Best Picture. There are exceptions, obviously (Chicago, Silence of the Lambs, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), but in general, I’m not drawn to the kind of film that gains accolades by the Academy.
This year, however, I’ve challenged myself to watch twelve of these movies. And already I regret it a little — do you know how long Gone With the Wind is? 238 minutes. That is two minutes shy of FOUR HOURS. For Christ’s sake, even RotK isn’t that long (The non-extended version anyway. The extended version is longer, but only by twelve minutes.)
So, I figured, You know, Carlie, let’s ease into this. We don’t need to start with the four hour plantation epic. There’s no reason to begin with the Holocaust movie that’s probably going to make you cry into your pillow all week. Let’s pick a movie closer to your own interests, starring actors that you generally enjoy. Cops. Drug dealers. Gene Hackman. Roy Scheider. This isn’t going to be so hard.
But somedays my blog is aptly named because wow, did I not like The French Connection.
I’m including SPOILERS on this one. Read at your own peril.
Asshole Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) becomes obsessed trying to bust an international drug smuggling operation.
1. We’re starting the year strong in cinematic blasphemy. The French Connection won five of the eight Academy Awards it was nominated for, including Best Actor (Hackman), Best Director (Friedkin), and obviously Best Picture. It’s also No. 70 on AFI’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time. And yet, I really struggled with this one.
I’m trying to allow that I might have felt differently if I’d been around when this movie came out. Every review I’ve read thus far has been primarily praising the grittiness of the film, the realism of the character. Popeye isn’t the good guy you want him to be. I mean, it’s dark, man. It’s REAL.
And I’m like . . . so?
A racist asshole protagonist might have been groundbreaking in 1971, but in 2015, I’m like been there, done that, got the T-shirt. Worse, it doesn’t seem like that good of a character study. It’d be one thing if we were saying Popeye is flawed like any other person, that he has complexities, that we have to take into account both his kindness and his cruelty . . . but Popeye isn’t that complex. Popeye is pretty much 100% a dick. I’m not convinced he’s even a particularly competent cop, much less a worthwhile human being, and I have a really hard time finding stories compelling when they’re centered around irredeemable fuckers.
I’m also not sure what William Friedkin and Ernest Tidyman hoped to accomplish with this story. (Well, other than winning Oscars, obviously. I suspect neither of them were like, “Oh no, what have I done?”) Popeye’s racism and general dickishness are both clearly intentional, yet the movie doesn’t seem to particularly condemn either. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say it celebrates Popeye, but if someone were to say, “Hey, Carlie, say you’re writing a paper on The French Connection. What’s your thesis?” I think I’d probably respond by shrugging and saying, “Cops can be assholes too?” If I was supposed to draw more out of the story than that . . . well, I failed.
What’s interesting about this is that The French Connection is based on real life events described in the book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy. I haven’t read it (nor have much interest in doing so), so I don’t know how similar the film’s story is to what actually happened. I do know that the detectives involved in the actual case, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, were involved in the production, advising the stars and even making cameos in the film. You’d think they might be upset by the portrayal of their fictional counterparts (or just cops in general), but I couldn’t find any evidence to suggest this, so . . . I don’t know. Was Eddie Egan like, Well, this is just a fictional account of a true story, so who cares if they made Fictional Me a complete tool? Or was it more like Wow, my character is hardcore. Did you see that chase scene? I am THE BEST!
2. Speaking of that chase scene . . . it’s easily my favorite part of the whole movie.
This review is basically note after note of film heresy, but in this one instance, I agree with the critics: the chase scene is spectacular. It is super intense and well-executed all the way around. My only criticism: does the train driver have a heart attack? He doesn’t appear to be shot, anyway, so I can only assume that he has a heart attack — or possibly forgot to eat a Snickers and so subsequently passes out from low blood sugar. This particularly convenient death is what allows Popeye to catch up to the bad guy, which is kind of lame, especially when you realizing that taking down Mr. Bread (I refuse to look up his actual name) is about the only thing Popeye does kind of right. Assuming you ignore the property damage and number of people who were almost certainly hurt during Popeye’s reckless driving, that is. (Although to be fair, you’re supposed to do that for most action heroes.)
3. Cause seriously: Popeye Doyle sucks as a cop.
I’m not saying being a cop is easy. I’d probably be a terrible cop. I never had any particular interest in being one and would probably have gotten laughed right out of the police academy if I had. Regardless, I remain seriously skeptical of Popeye’s competency, and not just because he’s pretty much the poster child for police brutality. Let’s go over his casework in this film:
Popeye only stumbles onto this smuggling business in the first place because he happens to see some key players at a bar (did I mention the raging alcoholism yet?) and decides to follow them. Tailing people doesn’t turn out to be his strong suit, though — while neither Sal nor his wife Angie notice him then, the same cannot be said later for Charnier.
Charnier is the Big Bad of this movie, and he’s generally more likable than our protagonist. Supposedly, this is intentional, and I do like the idea of juxtaposing an unlikable hero with a likable villain, but I don’t think it’s nearly as effective here as it could be, primarily because neither of the characters are really developed all that well. At any rate, Popeye ends up tailing Charnier, only Charnier totally makes him. Which, fine, these things happen — but the shit at the subway is just sad. Basically, it goes like this: our villain casually hops off the train, so our hero (considerably less casually) gets off the train too. Our villain easily steps back on, and our hero scrambles back to board it himself. This happens something like five times before Popeye finally loses Charnier. Honestly, guys. I was embarrassed for Popeye.
Not surprisingly, Popeye’s complete lack of results gets him tossed off the case and his complete lack of subtlety gets him put on a hit list. He should either be dead or else working a string of small fry narcotics cases; the only reason he gets to continue working on this one at all is because Mr. Bread –so named for the hilarious bite he takes from a dead man’s loaf of (presumably French) bread — turns out to be a pretty lousy assassin. Let’s be clear about this: Popeye does not get to take credit for his own survival here. Mr. Bread just sucks at his job.
He is pretty good at running away, but unfortunately he hijacks the one train where the driver’s heart cannot take the high stakes genre it’s inadvertently found itself in. After the train crashes, Popeye catches up and kills Mr. Bread. And like I said before, Popeye’s done an admiral job crashing into things in order to keep up, but he still got a pretty huge assist from the Now Presumably Dead Train Driver. I don’t know if I’d call this a true win.
I suppose you can say that Popeye at least has
heart knowledge decent gut instincts. Like, he somehow KNOWS that the Big Deal hasn’t gone through yet, despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing to support that belief. Or his ironclad certainty that this one car is being used to smuggle drugs, despite all evidence to the contrary. I mean, they rip that fucker apart, and Popeye’s still like, “But I know it! It’s there! I can feel it in my bones!” (Suddenly in my mind Gene Hackman just started singing to the tune of “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. I don’t even know what’s wrong with me sometimes.)
But despite Popeye’s dogged faith in his own convictions, he’s not the guy who figures out where the drugs actually are. His partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), is the one who realizes that the car weighs more than it’s supposed to, and the mechanic dude is the one who figures out where the drugs are being hidden. Popeye’s mostly there to go, “Ha ha, I was right after all!”
And then of course there’s that unfortunate time when Popeye tries to shoot the bad guy and kills a fucking cop.
Here’s the interesting thing about this: Popeye has a history with the cop he accidentally kills. We never get to know all the details of this backstory, but we basically find out what we need to know: Soon-To-Be-Dead Cop blames Popeye for the death of another cop. I’m going to assume that Popeye didn’t literally shoot that one, but given all that we’ve already discussed, I think it’s highly likely that STBD Cop is justified in blaming this unknown policeman’s death on Popeye’s poor decision making skills. And even if that cop’s death can’t be blamed on Popeye, STBD cop’s death sure can.
The movie ends like so: the cops bust the deal. Russo, generally more competent at everything than his partner, kills the second banana, while Popeye wildly and recklessly fires in the dark after Charnier. This is when STBD — well, just Dead Cop now, I guess — bites it. Russo, appropriately, is like, “Holy shit, what did you do?” Popeye, who seems relatively remorseless in the face of his obsession, runs off into the dark and fires some more. And then we’re told the fates of all the main players:
So, after all that, Charnier STILL gets away? Popeye, you’re fucking useless.
4. While I’m on the subject of that ending, though . . . I’m not sure I’m crazy about it. Popeye killing the cop, yes. That actually works really well for me. I didn’t realize what was going to happen until about a minute before it was actually done, and that’s incredibly solid story structure. I will praise that, if little else, about The French Connection. But the sound of gunfire after Popeye runs into the dark is one of the rare open endings I might’ve actually liked . . . only for Friedkin to ruin it by immediately telling us everything that happens.
Of course, they’re telling us all this so we can fully revel in the Total Downer Ending That Is So Like Life — dude gets away, associates get off light, protagonists are punished for their fuck-ups — but that ending has no punch for me because I don’t give a shit about anybody in this story. The only one I care even a little about is Russo, and that’s less because he’s a spectacularly well-drawn character — he probably spends half this movie muttering or napping — and more because I have a great deal of fondness for Roy Scheider.
5. Even taking that fondness into consideration, though, I would never in a million years have nominated him for Best Supporting Actor.
It’s not that he’s bad. He’s not. He’s perfectly serviceable. There’s even a few lines that I actively enjoy . . . but nothing about this performance feels like a stretch to me, nothing that seems like the role of a lifetime. And it’s not just him, either, though I think Gene Hackman’s performance is slightly more arguable, as it is a harder character to play . . . but . . . Academy hard? I’m not convinced. I mean, he does a decent job. I buy Hackman in the part, but the role itself still feels without nuance, and as a result I find myself perfectly whelmed by his performance. Not over or under. Just whelmed.
6. This isn’t a particularly long movie — less than two hours — but it feels longer, partially because it’s so unpleasant and uncomfortable to watch (particularly after Eric Garner) and partially because the pacing of the film is rather slow. If I wasn’t already frustrated with pretty much every complaint I’ve already made, I probably wouldn’t have minded the pacing so much. As is . . . well, let’s just say it didn’t help.
7. Finally, music: the film score for this movie is surprisingly fun, although I couldn’t help but occasionally feel that it was doing all the heavy-lifting in the action or suspense sequences, like what you’re watching is pretty mundane, but the music, man, the music is telling you this is SUPER EXCITING. Anyway, I did have a great deal of fun poorly conducting it with my hands.
Unfortunately, I was kind of hoping for more out of my film experience than Amateur Conducting Hour.
I wanted to like this. I even wore one of my berets while I watched it, to better get in the mood. (Well, the beret happened to be on the coffee table — I didn’t actively seek it out or anything.) But at the end of the day, the film just did very little for me.
Cops can be assholes too?