It is often said when discussion a work of art “they don't make them like that anymore.” In the case of William Friedkin's classic, The French Connection, it's actually true. The film, based on a true story, stars Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. The film is a series of chases and reversals as Doyle and his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) try and track down a massive drug shipment and is now available as a two-disc Blu-ray release.
The film centers itself on a drug ring starting in Franc which is bringing massive quantities of product to the streets of New York. Doyle and Russo slowly, sometimes subtly (when the principals are concerned), stalk their targets. They work long hours, brave the elements, and push the bounds of decency in order to acquire a measure of justice.
Doyle is a hard-nosed, not terribly likable cop, more obsessed with catching bad guys by any means necessary than anything else in the world. Though not always correct, Doyle has a very strong sense of right and wrong, and is willing to do whatever it takes to be on what he believes to be the right side. While the conflicted or tormented hero is prevalent in today's film- and television-making, conflicted heroes tend to still manage super-human feats. Doyle does nothing super-human, and while things are better in the film's world when it finishes, there is still a sense that not enough was done.
The brilliant thing about The French Connection that it ratchets up the tension while always remaining down to earth. There is nothing that takes place in the film that one thinks could not take place in real life. Essentially, while the stakes are huge and the quantity of drugs involved enormous, the film manages to always remain low key. Though a cop movie and a thriller, the characters remain human throughout, something we don't often see today.
The film spends a long time delving into the monotony of police working – tailing targets, rousting people for information, and building a case. A good portion of the film feels like a documentary being shot as the case is being constructed. Doyle and Russo show the audience the players and their parts, and once the audience has them down, things get put into motion.
The back of the case for the Blu-ray release describes the film as an “action-filled thriller,” which is a relatively accurate assessment. There is one truly spectacular action set piece, where Doyle, in a car, chases an assassin on an elevated train through the streets of Brooklyn. It is, according to the behind-the-scenes featurettes a chase that never actually took place in real life, but is one of the things for which the film is most remembered.
Amongst the bonus features there is an entire piece on the construction of that chase, in which Friedkin and producer Philip D'Antoni in the present day revisit some of the locations used for the chase and discuss not only the way the chase came into being, but how the film itself was brought to life. Also included are commentary tracks on the feature by Friedkin, one by Hackman and Scheider, deleted scenes, and several more behind-the-scenes featurettes. One of those focuses on Hackman's view of Doyle, and another features Friedkin talking with Sonny Grosso, one of the officers involved in the actual real-life story. Perhaps though one of the most fascinating inclusions is one in which Friedkin sits down with someone to discuss color timing this Blu-ray release. The viewer is taken through exactly what went into bringing this version of The French Connection to the viewer in terms of color, light, and darkness. It is, the viewer is shown, an incredibly intricate, detailed process.
It is also, however, a flawed one. Watching the release, one will notice incredible amounts of grain at times. This is almost assuredly due to both the age of the film and the film stock that was originally used. It is also, something that, to some extent is discussed in the color timing featurette, though in the featurette they talk about making sure that the grain isn't overpowering. However, it is. There are certain scenes which, in high definition, one sees the grain much more than the action, it is a disquieting experience, making one feel as though as much effort wasn't put into the release as clearly was. The sound too has some issues – elements on the quiet side are just fine, but the loud end of what is heard in the 5.1 channel DTS-HD audio track is truly overpowering. Shots ring out like explosions, and music in clubs deafen.
Even so, Friedkin's work is still astounding, and the five Academy Awards it won, including best picture, director, and actor remain a testament to The French Connection's greatness. The movie and characters are clearly a product of their time, but it remains a powerful film today, with a storyline that is that is incredibly engrossing, one that demands all of the viewer's attention, but that rewards it at every turn.