Although it was released as The French Connection Number 2 in the UK, one of the claims to fame of John Frankenheimer’s sequel is that it started the trend of Roman numerals after the title, although Shakespeare arguably got there first with Henry V. Otherwise, French Connection II is not exactly a classic sequel; it doesn’t have the NYC setting, only a couple of returning characters, no car chase, and offers a very different mood to William Friedkin’s scuzzy Oscar-winner.
Friedkin wasn’t interested in making a sequel either, but Hackman presumably liked the idea of retuning to the role of cop Popeye Doyle, arriving in Marseilles without any French and falling foul of hoods and police alike on the trail of Frog One (Fernando Rey).The lack of sub-titles is a plus here; we’re as adrift as Doyle is from whatever the locals are saying, and the sense of alienation is genuine.
Most reviewers focus on a lengthy rehab scene after Doyle is shot full of heroin, and while Hackman’s commitment and performance levels are admirable, it derails the energy of the movie without upping the stakes and is probably the reason that it’s not as fondly remembered. It’s a different kind of movie from the just-the-facts approach of the first film, transcribing Robin Moore’s book meticulously as a dismantled car strip-searched for contraband.
But The French Connection’s famously ambiguous ending left room for a satisfying enough sequel, and there’s lots of vigorous cops and robbers action to enjoy here, including a big-scale docklands shoot-out, a raid on a drug-packaging and distribution plant, and some great bits of business with the iconic character of Doyle. Whether expressing remorse after blowing a fellow cops cover, forming a wordless bond with a barman, or hitching a ride on a garbage truck to avoid a tail, Hackman inhabits this signature role so well that, even if it’s not quite the visceral rush of the original, Frankenheimer’s thriller has a weather-beaten style of its own.