On one hand, a sequel to The French Connection is completely logical. Popeye Doyle sees things through, probably more out of psychosis than out of any loyalty to law and order, and so it does make sense that he’d track the kingpin Alain Charnier all the way to Marseilles after the events of the first film. French Connection II begins right there, not long after the first film left off, and when he pulls up in a cab it’s pretty great to see Popeye again. He pulls his hat onto his head and pays the driver, then glares at him when the driver shakes his head and insists he’s owed more. “I’m taking your number, fella — that’s in case you screwed me,” he snarls. Yes: it’s Popeye.
On the other hand, though, a sequel to the perfectly imperfect conclusion of the first film seems simultaneously illogical. The first Connection ends somewhat suddenly when Popeye accidentally shoots a fellow cop, thinking him to be the evasive Charnier (or “Frog One”). Not only is a wishy-washy ending avoided, but Popeye’s character is further complicated by the brevity of his victory. The smarmy sarcastic wave that Popeye gives Frog One on the bridge is bittersweet, and maybe even a karmic contributor to the ultimate conclusion of Connection (in the same way that Hank’s wave to Walt in Breaking Bad represents his own short-lived supremacy).
Extending that plotline seems inherently contrived, then, especially when French Connection II posters shout “The French Connection was only the beginning…THIS IS THE CLIMAX“. As the sequel progresses Popeye seems less and less like Popeye, rambling clownishly as he “interrogates” nameless thugs in his corner of the French police precinct. There are glimpses and even entire sequences featuring the original, tough-as-nails Popeye we loved in the first film, such as his arrival in the taxi and a few subsequent exchanges with his French counterparts. It’s a very likable idea, plopping Popeye down in the middle of France and watching him go. But there’s something slightly off about this Popeye; in the first film he convinces Roy Scheider’s Cloudy to go get a drink after work, but he’s really on a stakeout. In this film, he heads to a bar because he seemingly has nothing better to do. The first film depicts a one-night stand between Popeye and a girl who’s disappeared by morning, which couldn’t bother him in the least. Popeye doesn’t get any tail in French Connection II, but he chases it. In those sequences, again, it just doesn’t seem like the same driven Popeye.
The longest sequence in the film lasts nearly an hour (half the runtime) and occurs more or less in the middle. Popeye is captured by Charnier, tied up and forcibly injected with heroin again and again, day after day. Soon he’s helplessly addicted, resulting in a prolonged and painful withdrawal process once he’s finally rescued. This sequence is certainly effective, and Gene Hackman chews scenery like crazy — but it’s far too long, leaving only an hour or so of real, villain-tailing Popeye. John Frankenheimer sits in the director’s chair for this go-round, occupying the seat previously held by William Friedkin, and he has an admittedly thankless task of following a classic. It’s fairly respectable work as far as sequels go, but that uneven depiction of Popeye makes it a much shakier film.
There are plenty of good things to highlight about French Connection II as well, not least of which is the clear devotion to genre storytelling that characterized the first film. A mimicked first shot of a long, slow zoom out introduces us to Marseilles in the same way Connection introduced us to New York; likewise, the other end of the film also pays homage to the original in refusing to give Popeye any time at all for a victory lap (even though he does seem to finally catch his quarry here). Best of all, even if he’s not exactly the same Popeye we remember, Hackman is just a fantastically watchable actor throughout. The drug-fueled rage and catatonic stupor of withdrawal give Hackman plenty of emotion to work with, and he hits just about every emotion there is throughout Connection II.
Also, on a lesser note, there’s a great shot during Charnier’s luncheon with his American client:
That’s Popeye up there in the top left corner, moments before Charnier glances out the window to catch sight of his nemesis.
So French Connection II is a more-than-passable sequel to the thrilling original — the issue is almost entirely in the necessity (or lack thereof) of the thing, which prolongs a story with a brilliant ending in The French Connection. Aside from that, the sequel shines brightest when Popeye Doyle is the Popeye of New York: dedicated, intense, unflappable and — like the first film — utterly uncompromising.