The French Connection – A Movie Review

When the “The French Connection” came out in 1971 I was a high school freshman.  My home room teacher was trying to come up with a class trip that would be less boring than the usual trip to a museum.  So, he took the class to a Manhattan theater to see this film.  I would say that was the only successful school trip during my four years there.

The movie is shot in the gritty and sometimes annoying cinema verité style that was popular at the time and the soundtrack is full of weird and fairly arbitrary sounds and music meant to add a disorienting sensation to the movie.  And the New York City streets and low life environs that make up a good chunk of the geography of the film are an ugly and depressing scene.  But the movie succeeds on its own terms.  It is the story of Popeye Doyle (played by Gene Hackman) a New York City Police detective who works undercover with his partner Buddy Russo (played by Roy Scheider) to try to stem the flow of heroin into the city.  Popeye is a cowboy who will use violence and intimidation to find out where the low-level drug dealers are getting their heroin from.  And his recklessness in capturing the bad guys has led to the death of a fellow cop at some time in the past.

Based on the info of an informant Popeye learns that a huge shipment of heroin is coming into the country from France.  The mastermind behind the deal is a Frenchman named Alain Charnier who is accompanied by his hitman Pierre Nicoli.  They are arranging to sell the drugs to a small time Brooklyn gangster named Sal Boca who along with his young wife Angie run a sandwich shop and drug dealership.  In the movie Popeye and Buddy discover Sal’s part in the drug deal completely at random.  They were in the Copacabana after work for a drink when Popeye notices a number of mob-connected drug dealers socializing with a young couple that neither of the detectives recognize.  On a hunch they follow the couple and see them change cars and appearance before assuming the part of small business owners in Brooklyn.  After checking their police records and observing Sal enter the building of a known drug financier named Joel Weinstock, Popeye becomes convinced that Sal is part of the heroin deal and asks his boss to request wire taps for Sal’s home and business.

The two Frenchmen reach New York and Popeye and Buddy, assisted by some federal agents, follow Sal and identify his contacts.  But Charnier is aware of the surveillance and plays a game of cat and mouse with Popeye, in one case outwitting him in a game of follow the leader on a subway car.  But the lack of results frustrates the police hierarchy and the assignment is cancelled with Popeye and Buddy sent back to the street work they usually do.  But Charnier’s hitman Pierre Nicoli is unhappy with Popeye knowing so much about the plan and he tells his boss that he will take care of the detective.

In the next scene Popeye is walking home to his apartment in the Marlborough Housing Project off 86th Street in south Brooklyn when a rifle shot strikes a nearby woman wheeling a baby carriage.  After Popeye avoids another half-dozen rounds, he goes up to the roof to find the sniper.  He finds the rifle but Nicoli has fled and looking down Popeye sees the man fleeing the area.  He chases Nicoli to the elevated subway station of the B train and sees the killer escape on a train.  Popeye flags down a motorist and commandeers his car.  What follows is one of the greatest car chase scenes in movie history.  The elevated train line Straddles and constricts 86th Street running beneath it.  And this narrowness and the congestion of the traffic along this busy road makes the high-speed chase that Popeye attempts essentially suicidal.  He’s chasing an overhead train on a crowded road by weaving in and out of the oncoming lane while traveling at what’s supposed to be sixty miles an hour.  Suffice it to say the unlucky motorist wouldn’t be getting much of his car back at the end of Popeye’s race.

Meanwhile Nicoli is commandeering the train and preventing it from stopping at the local stations.  In the commission of this plan he shoots an NYPD officer and the train conductor and gives the subway motorman a heart attack which leads to the train crashing into the back of another train on the same track.  Staggering out of the wreck Nicoli tries to leave the elevated station but Popeye has managed to reach the station ahead of him and when Nicoli tries to run Popeye shoots him in the back and guards his body until the police arrive.

After the killings committed by Nicoli, the investigation is relaunched and Popeye and Buddy are in charge again.  They discover the drugs hidden in a car planted for the exchange and once the deal takes place, they spring their trap.  A small army of police surround the deserted building on Ward Island where the drug dealers are holed up.  Sal is killed in the gun battle but the rest of the New York gang and the drugs are captured by the police.  Now Popeye and Buddy go after Charnier.  Popeye tells Buddy that Charnier is in the far end of the building.  Popeye walks straight toward the room but when a figure appears in the doorway Popeye cuts him down with five shots from his revolver.  But when Buddy goes over to the body it’s the federal agent that Popeye disliked the most.  Popeye ignores the gravity of what he’s just done and says he knows Charnier is in the room and charges in.  We hear a shot ring out and the scene ends.

Text on the screen tells us that only a couple of criminals served time and even that wasn’t for more than a few years.  Doyle and Russo were transferred out of the narcotics division and reassigned.  Charnier was never caught and was believed to be back in France.

As noted above this movie suffers from being a product of early nineteen seventies film-making.  New York City at that time period was a pretty gritty place.  At best, Popeye Doyle is a flawed hero but more accurately he is an anti-hero.  But his cowboy approach to police work is fast-paced and riveting.  Hackman and Scheider have a good chemistry as cop buddies.  And without a doubt, the chase scene is a must-see experience.  On a personal note I grew up in the area where Popeye Doyle lived and where the chase scene took place.  I can attest that only a heavily armed individual with a death wish could live in the Marlboro Projects back in the 1970s with no fear for life or limb.    And if someone tried to drive down 86th Street in the way represented by the movie’s chase scene the body count would have been truly noteworthy.

I recommend the movie to all fans of action movies and crime dramas.

John Wick 2 – A Movie Review

Earlier I reviewed John Wick.  And he killed everyone in sight and got a new dog, so story over and he lived (or bled to death) happily ever after.  But, doggone it, John Wick must have made some money so there’s gonna be a John Wick 2.

I watched it last night.  I even rented John Wick, just in case I needed to be refreshed on the details.  But it all came flooding back.  As luck would have it, there’s an evil crime lord who has a marker from John Wick that he can cash in if John comes out of retirement.  Wouldn’t you know it!  John declines.  Crime Lord blows up John’s house with some kind of a grenade launcher which based on its effect must involve anti-matter.  John is blown clear of the house (relatively unharmed mind you) and luckily for the Crime Lord the dog is unharmed.  You would think after what John did to a Crime Lord in the first movie word would have gotten out to the Crime Lord community.  Alas it hadn’t.

The remainder of the movie is the body count involved in first fulfilling his debt to the above referenced Crime Lord and then completing the vendetta against this self-same Crime Lord.  It is a ponderous count.

So, to review my take on this series, it’s based on John Wick being possessed of ultra-fast reflexes and a machine-like precision at killing men, whether with gun, knife, hands, head or pencil.  In fact, I think in one scene he stabbed his opponent to death with a rather blunt pistol.  In John Wick 2 he gets to mix it up a bit, in that a couple of his opponents are women (I think).

So, if you’ve already seen John Wick why would you need a second dose of the same?  The innovation in the second film is speed.  In this second outing a mere ten or twenty opponents would only be a momentary diversion, perhaps something for him to keep busy with between brushing his teeth and flossing.  During one sequence he’s armed with three guns (a pistol, a fully automatic rifle and a shot gun) and he’s barely able to reload anything fast enough to keep from running out of ammo.  And he’s not wasting bullets.  Amazingly, no matter what lighting conditions, distance or direction every shot is a head shot kill.  Sometimes he’s so busy that he’s forced to kill his opponents with one hand while reloading with the other.  And sometimes he’s so hard-pressed that he has to kill other attackers with a gun that’s still being held by a guy he’s also throttling.  It’s a dizzying dance of death that goes on and on and on.

The twist in the plot is that the Crime Lord has put out a seven million dollar price on John’s head and apparently all eight million inhabitants of New York City are hit men (and women).  So wherever he goes, subway, museum or restaurant, he’s assaulted by multiple assassins trying to collect on the contract.  So, knowing he needs help to survive he goes to the King of the Homeless (played by his old Matrix buddy Lawrence Fishburne) and is brought to the location of the Crime Lord.  The catch is he’s only given one gun and it only has a seven-bullet clip.  That would only last John Wick for at most four seconds.  But he agrees and away he goes.  The finale is another ballet of bullets.  Only this time exchanging guns with his victims is a pressing detail.

John Wick 2 is full of growth for Keanu as an actor.  At one point he makes a joke ( it’s about a knife in an aorta).  And he gets to banter with his friends and enemies in multiple languages, English, Russian, Italian and American Sign Language for the Deaf (one of his victims is a deaf woman, I think).  He truly is a Man for All Seasons.

By the end of the movie John Wick has now broken the code of the Continental Hotel and Hitman’s Club.  He is given an hour’s grace before all the same bounty hunters as earlier are coming to kill him.  We last see him heading south (I think) out of Central Park.  And he’s moving pretty fast considering the beating the movie has inflicted on him.

So, I once again recommend this new John Wick movie.  It provides fair recompense for your time and money in the form of ludicrous speed gangland killing.

My only worry is what about John Wick 3?  Based on the increase in killing speed between the movies, in the next one he’ll either have to upgrade his brain and body with cybernetic replacements or he’ll have to put in a lot of overtime.  I guess if he can learn to kill people while simultaneously performing his other daily activities he can get his quota up high enough.  Showering, shaving, eating breakfast, talking on the phone.  These things can certainly be done one-handed.  Working out at the gym could get tricky but I guess he could try shooting a gun with his foot while working the Lat-Machine.

John Wick – A Movie Review

Keanu Reeves is a bizarre phenomenon. He’s been making movies since the mid-eighties and is 54 years old.  Yet I think of him as basically Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  It’s the same halting voice and basic appearance.  In the interim he has starred in a number of money making movies, most notably The Matrix.  And he has become an action movie hero.  The John Wick movies are the latest extension of this venture.

I watched John Wick probably a year after it was in the theaters.  The premise was of course ridiculous.  John is your basic retired uber-hitman.  He gave up his hum-drum nine to five life of garroting and mangling the enemies of his New York Russian Mafia Crime Lord to live a peaceful idyllic life in his spectacular suburban estate with his beautiful but short-lived wife.  She dies of cancer shortly before the movie’s start but is thoughtful enough to have a puppy delivered to John near the opening scene.  So, you get it, dead wife reaches beyond the grave and bestows gift of love to retired hitman?  Memory of dead wife and gift she left him is most important thing in his life.  Check.  Also, loves vintage sports cars and ’69 Mustang is second most important thing in his life.  Check.  The set up.  Check.

Somehow, completely coincidentally and without knowing who he’s dealing with, the son of John Wick’s crime lord ex-boss accidentally victimizes the now retired hitman and starts a vendetta by stealing his car and killing his dog.  Well I guess it could have been more blatant.  He might have gone for the trifecta and castrated Wick while he was at it.

After this the film embarks on an odyssey of shooting, stabbing and punching pleasure.  You’d think after the first couple of dozen gangsters are dispatched that it would start to get boring and repetitive.  But the hyper-kinetic fight scenes are strangely fascinating.  It was as if you were watching one of those loops they include with a first-person shooter game that show how someone who has memorized the game can dispatch all the enemies one by one in incredible speed and precision.  It’s the extension of the concept seen at the end of the Matrix where Neo has gotten the hang of his abilities and is fighting Agent Smith with one hand held behind his back, parrying every punch without even looking because his reflexes are an order of magnitude faster than his opponent’s.

Anyway, this goes on for the balance of the movie.  The Russian Crime Lord is kind of entertaining and we are introduced to the Continental Hotel and Club that caters to hitmen and forbids them to kill each other on its grounds under penalty of membership termination (which coincidentally includes death).  It’s lots of fun and there are gold coins and lots of automatic weapons and views of iconic Manhattan locations.

By the end of the movie, at least John’s absorbed a lot of damage from fighting the dozens of hit men who stand between him and the Crime Lord that needs killing.  So, you know it wasn’t easy.  And he finds a new dog.  So, balance is restored to the universe and John Wick can go back into a peaceful retirement since everyone is dead.

So, what’s my opinion?  Was it good.  Well, obviously, it has to be compared by the standards of the genre it belongs in.  It’s an action adventure.  It’s almost a comic book movie.  From that perspective, it’s highly successful.  It’s as full of action as it’s possible to imagine.  The fight choreography is meticulous and the cinematography is highly effective.  And he’s only killing bad guys.  He’s the strong silent man bringing down vengeance on his enemies.  He’s the modern-day Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood but without the occasional complete sentence.

I liked it.  Admittedly it’s a guilty pleasure.  Basically, it’s an atavistic response to injustice.  Take justice into your own hands and clean house.  Scratch the veneer and we’re still just cavemen.  Sure, we’ve got indoor plumbing and 401K plans but the mindless primitive lurks right below the surface.  Once you recognize that, you can jump right in and enjoy John Wick for what it is.  High Octane Revenge.

John Wick 2 – A Movie Review