It's rare that a sequel completely out-performs its predecessor, but French Connection 2 is as good if not better than the first film. That's partly because the formula of the original French Connection has become tried, tested and trite, so when you watch it now it feels a bit run of the mill.
But the follow up film comes across as completely fresh, a police drama which creates real and involving characters and then places them in appalling jeopardy. Popeye Doyle has been sent to Marseille to pursue the heroin kingpin who eluded him at the end of the first film. His career is on the rocks after killing five men (two of them policemen), and he is considered disposable by his own force -- and a royal pain in the behind by the French police.
Doyle speaks no French so much of the local's dialogue is a mystery to him. These days a film-maker would inevitably give us pages of subtitles but they don't appear in FC2. Instead we start to empathise with Doyle as people rattle off instructions and comments around him. He barely knows what's going on and ends up stalking the evening streets like an escaped wolf in a city. He knows his prey is close but doesn't have a clue how to find him.
There are a couple of shoot out scenes, a marvellous foot chase (Hackman spends most of these films running through streets like a wild dog on the scent), and the requisite 'girls in bikinis' moments, but the high points of the film centre entirely on Hackman's desperate acceptance of his capture, and then his awful recuperation in a French jail cell -- which results in a bond being formed with his French antagonist/colleague.
It's gripping stuff; awesome acting from Hackman. The best scenes show Popeye Doyle, an aggressive and unpleasant NY cop, stripped back to his core and struggling to surface.
The finale of the film is all about his struggle, gasping and alone, pursuing the criminal who nearly destroyed him.
If you thought the first French Connection was OK, then try this. In many ways FC2 blows the original into the weeds.