Movies · Reviews

The Connection Delivers Old-School Thrills, Pound of Flesh Settles for Van Damme’s Bare Ass

By  · Published on May 16th, 2015

Drafthouse Films

There may be no direct link between William Friedkin’s classic 1971 film, The French Connection, and Cedric Jimenez’s new thriller, The Connection, but that hasn’t stopped it from being billed as the French side of the same story. Not that it’s entirely wrong to frame it that way – the ‘based on a true story’ film follows French law enforcement’s arduous efforts to shut down a drug ring operating in their own back yard during the early ‘70s – but there’s no direct crossover between them. Aside from the nuts and bolts aspects of the genre they’re also completely different beasts from the surface inward. Friedkin’s film is gritty and grounded while Jimenez’s feature is an exercise in sumptuous style, and where the former indulged in memorable action beats the latter is mostly concerned with character drama.

Lucky for us the world is big enough for both of them.

Marseilles is in the middle of a mob war – a conflict furthered by the city’s importance as the midpoint along the infamous drug route between Turkey and the United States – and one prong of the authorities’ response is to move Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) from his successful tenure as a Juvenile Magistrate over to the Organized Crime division. He immediately dives in with the team as they track extorted funds, drug shipments and the various players at every level. Top of the heroin-fueled food chain is Gaetan “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), a tough businessman whose business is drugs. He’s an ethical, tough love kind of guy – he makes one of his men snort an excessive amount of coke after discovering he’s been using – but his main goal is to keep his wife and family in the luxury they’ve become accustomed to.

The two men wage war from their posts above the fray, but the ongoing battle pulls them ever downwards threatening their positions, relationships and lives. Zampa faces growing threats from competing drug gangs while Michel is forced to start a secret investigative squad due to corruption in the police department, and it’s not long before the two find themselves on a collision course.

The Connection is an old school crime film exploring both sides of the heroin-dipped coin with equal dramatic flair. Dujardin and Lellouche are well-paired heavyweights who share more than just a slight physical resemblance. They both convince as men who value family above all else but who still can’t walk away from their increasingly dangerous day jobs. The intensity they display during the film’s heightened moments is balanced by a softness waiting in the wings for their family. We don’t necessarily want both men to succeed, but we would rather not see them fail either.

It’s an absolutely gorgeous film too with sun-drenched landscapes and impossibly cool-looking characters captured by cinematographer Laurent Tangy like veteran models vacationing in the past. The sea frequently fills the frame and our senses, and it’s not difficult to imagine that we’re there among the finely dressed and morally corrupt. Music, including both Guillaume Roussel’s score and various tracks, add to the luxurious atmosphere.

The film does run a bit too long and could benefit from trimming some of the never-ending procedural scenes – their dryly mundane effect is necessary, but they overstay their welcome well after the point has been made. The script also feels a bit too comfortable at times as it moves towards the inevitable leaving us at times riding on the power of the visuals and performances.

The Connection mixes elements from other films – Heat, The Untouchables – with its own style to tell a familiar tale well. It creates a world and pulls you in only to remind you at the end that this warm, sunny fantasy is actually the cold, dark world called reality.

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E1 Entertainment Distributor

Deacon (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is a serious guy who arrives in the Philippines on serious business with no time to fool around. Well, okay, a little fooling around never hurt anyone, so after rescuing a woman from an apparent mugger in an alleyway he shares some drinks with her before heading back to his hotel room for the old Manila In ’n’ Out. He awakes the next morning in an ice-filled bathtub with bloodied sheets and a shoddy surgical scar on his back, and he quickly realizes that someone has snatched one of his kidneys. This isn’t cool for several reasons, but top of the list is that he was in town to donate that very organ to his deathly ill niece.

So yeah, he’s thinking he wants his kidney back.

Action fans were recently gifted with solid return-to-form films from Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa (Kung Fu Killer and Skin Trade, respectively), but it may have been too much hoping for the same from Van Damme. His third go round with director Ernie Barbarash (6 Bullets, Assassination Games) has a potential-filled premise, but aside from a handful of absurd moments it never quite works.

The biggest issue is that the film fails as an action pic. Van Damme can still do splits and spin kicks for days, but his fight choreography here is uninspired and unexciting. You could argue a narrative reason – the man did just have his kidney removed after all – but that’s not the case. The fights are arranged and shot with the bare minimum of interest. And don’t get me started on the car chase. Too late, I’m started. Maybe it’s just my having recently seen Mad Max: Fury Road talking, but this film’s car chase may just be the singular worst one ever captured on camera. All of the in-car shots are poorly green-screened, the cars are clearly crawling along at 5 MPH and the chase’s numerous “close calls” and “collisions” make this the saddest sequence I’ve seen since the entirety of Dear Zachary.

The drama fares slightly better as the relevantly-named Deacon faces off against his Christ-loving brother, George (John Ralston), and even uses the word of god – ie a bible – as a weapon at one point. There’s a non-literal battle for Deacon’s soul at play here as his methods are challenged at every turn by the pacifistic George. He’s a turn-the-other-cheek kind of guy, but can he maintain that attitude when it comes to kidneys? The two brothers share a fractured history that plays into their current situation, and while the religious themes aren’t fully explored they add an interesting element to an otherwise standard flick.

Pound of Flesh never finds the urgency inherent in its setup, and Van Damme struggles to muster the energy to hold our attention. There are still moments along Deacon’s journey that entertain though, moments that tease a stronger dramatic arc and promise more thrilling action, and while they never come to fruition they’re enough to keep this B-movie in the neighborhood of a C-.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.