Written by Puño Estupendo
I imagine that it's not easy to make a sequel, especially when the original film you're following up on is a major critical and financial success. Add to that the fact that you're not even the one who directed the original and you get a sense of what John Frankenheimer did when he accepted the job of helming The French Connection II.
Kind of a weird thing to do when you think about it. Frankenheimer was a celebrated director, having done Grand Prix, Seconds, and The Manchurian Candidate by this point in his career; it seems like he certainly wouldn't have had to follow William Friedkin's The French Connection at all. In the documentary about him included as part of the supplemental material on the disc, it's recalled that Frankenheimer was rumored to be angry about the job but yet kept those feelings hidden. Maybe that's one of the reasons the two films differ so greatly from each other.
Frankenheimer takes the character of "Popeye" Doyle (played once again by Gene Hackman), and does almost everything he can to take him away from what fans of the original might have been expecting. Changing the setting from New York to Marseilles, the gritty cop is already out of his element right from the start. There are also no returning characters from the first film, except for the baddie, which adds to the denial of anything familiar with which a fan would be looking for. Finally, the film is turned on its ear by making the second act all about heroin addiction. Doyle is abducted off the street by thugs working with the drug dealer he's in France to try to capture. He's taken to a dingey hotel where they hold him captive and shoot him up with heroin, making him an addict over the course of weeks before dumping him on the french police's doorstep. The detective that Doyle has been at odds with over the assignment (played wonderfully by french actor Bernard Fresson) smuggles him to a basement room and puts him through a home-made detox. All of this is kept secret so as not to ruin Doyle's reputation and ruin his life.
This act of the film is wrenching to watch at times; Hackman and Fresson play the scenes so well. Only after all of this, when Doyle has come back from the depths that were forced upon him, does the film turn into a crime-thriller of the like you'd expect. Everything boils down to a final confrontation between Doyle and the drug dealer that eluded him in New York, Alain Charnier.
This is a great film because of how different it is from the original. It could easily have been an independant film unto itself with only a few changes to the script. Though not as gorgeous as the Blu-Ray edition of The French Connection, it has its own charms to offer the viewer. Presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, it falls a little flat when compared to the first film. Frankenheimer directs the movie with style but it looks like a great deal of other films from that time period with nothing that really wows your eyes.
Also a bit disappointing was the lack of the capabilities with the sound. Though it has a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, it doesn't accomplish much other than sounding crystal clear. Nothing sounds like it's really moving around the room and the sub kind of bumps a little bit without any real rumblings. It sounds great, but it's not pushing the envelope of home entertainment by any means.
The saving graces here are the supplemental featurettes. An interview with Gene Hackman that is a complimentary piece to the one he did for The French Connection is a nice watch. He seems to have great feelings towards the filming of this movie and it comes through in his speech and mannerisms. There are also two commentary tracks, but what I really liked was the documentary "Frankenheimer: In Focus" that was included. With fantastic interviews with a slew of people that have worked with him, I thought it was almost as good of a watch as the film was and I highly recommend it's viewing after you've seen the main feature.
If you are a fan of the original, then you should definitely add The French Connection II to your Blu-Ray library as well.