One of the difficult parts of watching older films is that you inevitably find things that seem overplayed or cliché, but you can’t tell whether that was the case at the time or if its techniques were novel. For example, if you were to picture a car chase scene in a movie, one of the things you might recall being a common trope is the “woman with baby stroller narrowly avoids getting hit by out-of-control car in chase.” But was this new at the time, or already a joke by 1971?
The other thing about a film like this is that you’re not really sure whether the anti-hero trope is yet overplayed. These days, you can’t shake a stick without thwacking an anti-hero (who will probably thwack you back in response to your thwacking), and I suspect the early 70s wasn’t too early to catch the cynicism and ethical grayness that brings out the average anti-hero. And as much as I love me a good ol’ anti-hero, I’m a little underwhelmed by Popeye Doyle’s tough guy persona in this film. I suppose it’s just a personal preference thing – to me, anti-heroes are only interesting when you get a sense of what drives a character to make the decisions he makes. I don’t really get that sense of interiority here; I don’t understand what drives Popeye, which ultimately makes him not very sympathetic to me. Especially when you take into account the body count in this film, much of them thanks to Popeye himself.
The French Connection, according to Wikipedia, was apparently a common term for a certain period when heroin was smuggled into the U.S. from Turkey and beyond via France. I wasn’t familiar with that, so this little chapter on the War on Drugs was something new. Given that most of the country (and perhaps beyond) is in the midst of an opioid crisis, it’s interesting how timely this feels. Yet also simplistic. There’s a sense of the stakes here – admittedly ramped up for the sake of the movie – that suggests how much of an impact this one drug bust will prove. Popeye and his unit break out all the stops to catch this one dealer, and there’s a genuine feel that this will truly have an impact on the addicted guys hanging out in the bar waiting for their next fix. We don’t see that there’s another shipment right behind it.
Too cynical a view, perhaps? Well, don’t blame me. I’m just rolling with the bleak outlook these kinds of film demand.
I’ll be honest: I was kind of expecting to enjoy this more than I did. I figured that it would be more plot driven and exciting than the typical Best Picture biopic, that it might be wittier or more of a mystery than a straight up thriller. And to be fair, I watched it while a bit distracted by other things, so there were some moments when I’m sure I missed something. Either that, or I just suck at following storylines. Instead, I found it kind of ponderous in parts, occasionally hard-to-follow, and without a sense of character that I find in more recent films (or, for that matter, books). It also didn’t surprise me. When somebody, a “good guy,” was shot near the end, I thought for a moment that he was actually playing for the bad guys, but that would be too surprising a twist, I guess. Instead, we watch another good guy make questionable decisions and try to convince ourselves that he’s still the hero.
First Time Watching? Yes
Final Verdict: I’m picking my feet in Poughkeepsie.