Add the word "French" to the title of director Cedric Jimenez's period policier "The Connection," and you get this film's intended spiritual antecedent: William Friedkin's classic of vulgar New York cops against sophisticated European heroin traffickers.
In rolling out a fictionalized version of the Marseille side of that infamous smuggling operation and the 1970s battle between dogged magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) and untouchable kingpin Gaetan "Tany" Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), Jimenez affects the gritty, grainy vibe of that era's thrillers. But the postmodern wink is always there, in a rock song cue, in a lingering love of vintage fashions and décor, or in the emphasis on attention-deficit pace over raw narrative power. That lends the proceedings a distinctly empty breathlessness with familiar tropes about obsessive lawmen (breaking rules, distancing the family) and ruthless criminals (hard one minute, soft the next) given no new shadings. A story spanning six years — and many bloody killings — feels like it could be one week.
On the plus side, the coastal Marseille locations, where Jimenez is from, are a potent visual component for a movie built on face-offs, surveillance and action. And despite the pedestrian screenplay (by Jimenez and Audrey Diwan), Dujardin and Lellouche are magnetic performers who slip easily into their antagonistic roles. Dujardin's high-wattage matinee-idol smile, in fact, is a distraction easy to accept because his charisma wouldn't be out of place in any age.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, drug content, language.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Playing: The Landmark, West L.A.