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SIFF 2015: Methodical and passionate, ‘The Connection’ celebrates smart crime-dramas

SIFF 2015:  Methodical and passionate, ‘The Connection’ celebrates smart crime-dramas

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The Connection
Written by Audrey Diwan & Cédric Jimenez
Directed by Cédric Jimenez
France / Belgium, 2014

The Connection masterfully mixes police procedurals, gangster sagas, and chain smoking into a riveting crime drama. Less about the gritty realism of The French Connection or the atmospheric cool of Heat, Cédric Jimenez’ film captures the ebb-and-flow of a high-stakes narcotics investigation. Though punctuated by the occasional shootout or adrenaline-fueled chase, The Connection really draws its power from the passion and politics of living on the edge of oblivion. This is smart, savvy cinema that rewards your patience and attention.

It’s 1975 in Marseilles and a growing drug syndicate known as “The French” traffics heroin with impunity. Everyone knows that “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche) is running the show, but no one has the stones to risk his brutal reprisals. No one, that is, until Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) takes over as the new Organized Crime magistrate.

Starting as a Juvenile magistrate, Pierre has been fighting on the frontlines of the drug war. He’s driven and idealistic; an unimpeachable force for justice. A juicy bribe from one of Zampa’s enforcers is quickly donated to a rehabilitation clinic. Still, there is a price to be paid for such dedication. His young family is forced to settle for the emotional crumbs he leaves behind, and his motor never stops long enough to enjoy life. A recovering gambling addict, Pierre lives for “that moment where you can lose it all.” Whether he knows it yet or not, he just put his life on the line to topple The French.

Writer-director Jimenez (who co-wrote with Audrey Diwan) seamlessly blends the stylistic threads from other films into a unique and engaging mélange. We have the subject matter and realism of The French Connection, the gangster camaraderie of Goodfellas, the intimate duel of driven men from Heat, and the idealistic lawman from The Untouchables. We even get a drug cooking montage that could have been lifted straight from an episode of Breaking Bad. Still, Jimenez manages to put his own spin on these true-life events while imparting a healthy dose of romantic idealism.

buttonYou can’t see the rope dangling between Zampa and Pierre, but their tug-of-war is the fascinating epicenter of The Connection. Each man must battle to stay ahead of the other, and it’s never clear who will finish with the upper hand. Just when it seems impossible for Pierre to crack the case, he gets a new lead that changes the tide. Even more interesting are the politics within each man’s organization. Even Zampa, a smooth operator who loves his gang, isn’t immune to political wrangling with ambitious subordinates. It’s this attention to detail that distinguishes The Connection from other crime dramas. Jimenez understands that criminal cases of this magnitude are a marathon of wills, and the ultimate winner may only emerge after he loses everything.

Jimenez’ film is unabashedly romantic. Zampa and Pierre love their women completely, and neither is afraid to shed a few tears to keep them from leaving. Both live with furious passion, though much of that energy seems focused in the wrong direction at times. They are complicated characters, shaded in grey, and it’s never less than exhilarating to watch them smolder.

Even more romantic is the notion of the just cause. Not just from Pierre, who tirelessly pursues unequivocal justice, but for Zampa, who views himself as an honorable provider. Each man understands the threat the other poses to their ideology, and when they finally meet… it’s a little more intense than exchanging veiled threats in a coffee shop.

zampaLellouche and Dujardin make perfect foils. As Zampa, Lellouche keeps his passion just below the surface; to reveal too much might embolden his enemies. Dujardin gets more leash to work with. He lashes out, rages, and then implodes again. It’s his gambler’s mentality… win big or die trying. A terrific supporting cast of friends, family, and colleagues add texture to what is, essentially, a two-man show.

If The Connection has one flaw it’s falling victim to its own ambitions. Whereas Mann gave his morality play 3 hours to unfold, Jimenez crams his saga into just over two. The result is a truncated third act that feels a bit too tidy. We could also use more backroom wheeling-and-dealing, but there simply isn’t enough time. Basically, we’re left wanting more than Jimenez had the luxury of giving.

The Connection is a crime drama for people who prefer the minutia of the investigation to the thrill of the chase. Just like its hero and villain, this story is methodical and precise. Big performances, passion to burn, and Jimenez’ unflinching camera invite us into a very exclusive club. It’s a credit to the rich characterizations that we can forget the real-life outcomes and truly engage this story on its own dramatic terms. Smart crime drama at its best.