By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jun 20, 2015 at 11:56 AM

In 2012, back when the Brewers were the defending NL Central champs and a majority of the "Game of Thrones" cast was still all happy and not stabbed, "The Artist" won Best Picture. I know; I forgot too. I mean, how weird was that? In these modern times – and in a year with Clooney, Scorsese, Pitt, Allen, Hanks, Malick and Spielberg all in the running, no less – it was a black-and-white French silent film that won the night, fueled by an adorable dog, some gorgeous cinematography, more than a little Hollywood self-regarding nostalgia and the phosphorescent smile of its award-winning star, Jean Dujardin.

It seemed odd at the time, and three years later, the movie’s run still seems like a bizarre aberration, more remembered as some peculiar trivia than as a memorably great film.

As for its agile and charismatic star, like his "Artist" character and his tragic real-life forerunners, Dujardin hasn’t been heard from much since his silent heyday. He had a small role in George Clooney’s sleepy old-men-on-the-march throwback "Monuments Men," in addition to playing a sleazy Swiss banker lost in the excess of Scorsese’s "Wolf of Wall Street." But that’s been about it this side of the ocean. Even with all that charm, it might be hard to make name for yourself in the present when your career has thus far been stuck playing around in the past (even in his native France, his break-out films were ’60s Bond-esque spy romps).

"The Connection" won’t do much to shake Dujardin’s gimmicky or pastiche-heavy shadow. After all, as the title suggests, the French crime drama basically serves as the overseas pen pal to William Friedkin’s 1972 Best Picture winner "The French Connection." However, as simply a solid old school cops-and-gangsters procedural, Cedric Jimenez’s film effectively delivers the expected goods. It may be an echo of, well, pick any first or second tier crime classic from "Heat" to "The Godfather" to "American Gangster" to literally any Scorsese, but at least it doesn’t ring so far from full volume that it’s just a distant faded wisp. There’s still some "there" there in Jimenez’s work.

It’s the late ’60s, and heroin is raging its way across the population, pipelined across the globe by Le French, a core group of gangsters located – get this – in France. The smooth operator is Tany Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), who lords over his empire with a calm but firmly menacing hand. When one early underling is found with coke, for instance, Tany makes him snort the whole batch in one long conga line like a disapproving dad making his underage drinking son chug an entire bottle of gin.

On the other side of the law is Pierre Michel (Dujardin), who gets upgraded from juvenile drug cases to the big hunt for the Connection. He attacks the case with enthusiastic zeal, quickly putting away Zampa’s line-up of small-time goons and efficiently working up the food chain. However, as the years go on – the film’s timeline extends all the way into the ’80s – and Zampa remains out of reach, Michel’s eager motivation morphs into something closer to destructive obsession over the case and the web of corruption surrounding it (including inside his own department).

Cue the nightclubs and era-approved soundtrack hits and various non-compliant, overly chatty gangster cronies receiving several calibers of upper management disapproval (including one poor schmuck who, after being discussed for much a good chunk of the story, finally pops up on screen just in time to immediately take a shotgun blast to the guttyworks).

The odds are good you’ve seen "The Connection" before – and not just because of its titular and topical relationship to Friedkin’s award-winning action hall of famer (actually, for the most part, it smartly stays out of the classic’s way). It’s the overall crime action-drama clichés littered throughout Jimenez and co-writer Audrey Diwan’s screenplay that give the project the feeling of déjà vu.

As far as plotting goes, the slow-burning cat-and-mouse game of thinly veiled threats and occasional bursts of gangland gunplay stays on a fairly familiar route, one that predictably includes a rote subplot involving our hero’s 24-hour dedication – a variation on his former gambling addiction – to the case wearing thin on his growingly concerned and exhausted wife (played here by Celine Sallette). Immediately after she’s introduced, you can pretty much begin the countdown to the inevitable scene where she moves out, leaving behind a note saying she’s staying at a friend’s house, and he has a big emotional breakdown.

And of course, his obsession eventually gets him removed from the case, complete with a superior sternly noting, "This time, you’ve gone too far." When Zampa and Michel finally meet face to face about midway through, you half expect the drug-peddling business criminal to drop the ultimate overcooked cliché line of "We’re not so different, you and I" – and not just because Dujardin and Lellouche look eerily similar enough to pass for one another’s stunt doubles.

So the film isn’t scoring many points for creativity. Sometimes, however, it’s satisfying enough to enjoy a classic, traditional recipe simply dusted off and cooked up with skill and good ingredients. When executed well, the basics alone can be good enough – especially when they haven’t been on the menu for a while, as been the case with this kind of gangster drama – and that’s what "The Connection" has to offer.

Jimenez (whose English debut is already on tap with next year’s WWII drama "HHHH," starring Rosamund Pike and Jack O’Donnell) and his grainy, on-the-ground direction give the movie a good amount of raw energy and electricity, urgently following the action with a smattering of zippy montages and the occasional grand landscape shot. The result is a sharply honed movie with vigor and a strong authentic feel, from the lived-in brotherhoods on both sides of the law to the raid sequences to the not aggressively played up period details.

His camera and the editing may edge toward becoming a little too shaky and snappy during some of the action scenes, but the sequences are still tense and crackle, and on the whole, "The Connection" and its the two-hour-plus running time impressively roars through its decade-spanning story with a slick, propulsive and often just plain entertaining verve.

Much of the film’s fun factor comes from its perma-eyebrow-cocked star. Dujardin’s big, bright grin is mostly left on lockdown, hidden underneath his character’s stern motivation and escalatingly grim stakes. His first scene, after all, is yelling at a young drug addict in the hopes of finagling a lead. Still, even out of his charming pastiche wheelhouse, the French star sells the character and his ethically and emotionally exhausting hunt well – especially during his big breakdown in a phone booth.

Plus, even through the bloody tension and drug-slinging intrigue, his natural charisma still shines through – like in scenes celebrating a fellow magistrate’s retirement or a string of recent arrests – with a sneakily entertaining dash of mischievousness. There’s a brief moment during a montage of arrests where, during an interview, he flings a gun at his suspect then immediately takes it back and sends it off for fingerprinting. It’s a fairly silly moment – complete with almost a little third wall wink – but Dujardin sells it just right, bringing a playful little personality to the proceedings.

The story and screenplay for "The Connection" could use the same kind of unique personality. In general, it lacks an amount of special pop that would raise the film over just an enjoyable exercise in genre (that big "Heat"-esque De Niro-Pacino meeting of the gods, for instance, only plays like a meeting of simply men despite the efforts of Dujardin, Lellouche and the gorgeously grand ocean setting) not to mention make its web of mob characters more defined and less easy to lose track of. Only one named Crazy Horse – a Le French member who survives a hit and starts a mini gang war – makes much of an impact, mostly because of his surreally impressive skill at not dying.

Still, while "The Connection" wears old threads, much like its retro-brand star, at least it wears them well. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.