New York police officer James "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) has arrived in Marseilles to track down the man at the head of a costly heroin smuggling operation, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), who he believes - correctly - is operating out of the port. But once he finds the French officer who is his contact, Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), with his hands inside some fish he's cutting open, Doyle wonders what kind of operation he's gotten into, the explanation being that the cops were fooled into seeking drugs inside the merchandise. But it becomes clear the authorities want Doyle here for one reason: to set him up.
French Connection II happened along three years after the William Friedkin classic which had won acclaim around the world, but seemingly because it ended on a brilliantly conceived note of uncertainty, the studio were clamouring to spoil that open lack of resolution with a more concrete finale, even if it took a whole two hour movie to do so. Thus the sequel was organised, and a reluctant Hackman coaxed back into action as the character who had awarded him star status, this time relocated to France and with Rey as the other returning actor, necessary because presumably we were supposed to want to see him receive his just desserts. Yet was there more to this than wringing out more cash from fans of the original?
Not really, but you could see why Hackman agreed to do it, as he got to improvise and be the centre of attention for the whole of the movie, which sounded like a perfectly good idea until you saw his embarrassingly self-indulgent performance, undoing all the good work he had put in during the first film. It was very strange to see the usually reliable Hackman delivering one of his extremely rare bad appearances, even more so considering the Popeye Doyle character was the one which had changed his career and opened it up to so much terrific acting, gathering fans of his muscular style throughout the world. But if anybody tells you that he was perfectly fine in this, mention two words: cold turkey.
What happens is that Doyle is in Marseilles to lure the bad guys out of hiding to try and get their revenge on him, or at least get him out of the way, but rather than put a bullet in his head which you may have thought would be more effective, they opt for a more grim form of poetic anti-justice. They kidnap him from the streets and take him to a dingy hotel where he is pumped full of heroin, leaving him insensible (as proof little old lady Cathleen Nesbitt steals his watch from his wrist). Three weeks later, Popeye is retrieved by the police and taken to dry out in one of their cells. If watching him loll around wasn't bad enough, there then follows what feels like half an hour of Hackman rambling about chocolate bars and baseball which kills the already sluggish plot stone dead.
Watching this great actor try to hit a thrown apple with a chicken leg as a bat is not how you should remember him, but here it is. Director John Frankenheimer picked up the pace a bit once Doyle is straight again and seeking to get his own back, with the New Yorker returning to the hotel and dousing it with petrol, then setting it on fire ("Exterminator - you got rats, buddy!"), then a waterlogged action scene which must have reminded the star of The Poseidon Adventure, followed by finally the best sequence in the film as Doyle chases after Charnier on foot through the streets. Even then, they try to replicate the ending of the original with an abrupt close, except here they're having their cake and eating it too. Even for an unpromising concept, there are parts of French Connection II which almost redeem it, the odd laugh, the occasional action bit, but at its heart is a star out of control and a director with a shaky grasp of what made the source so great. Music by Don Ellis.