French Connection II 1975 ****

French-Connection-IIAlthough 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. 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 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). 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. But The French Connection’s ambiguous ending left room for a satisfying 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 Doyle; 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 original, Frankenheimer’s thriller has a weather-beaten style of its own.

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Grand Prix 1966 ***

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John Frankenheimer’s 1966 epic of motor-racing comes in at a cumbersome 176 minutes, but if you can manage the length, there’s plenty of rewards for patient viewers. Making full use of widescreen and split-screen formats, Frankenheimer creates an impressive sense of realism about the sports action, with James Garner as Peter Aron, who has to balance his feelings for guilt about another driver’s injury with his drive to win at all costs. The international cast features Yves Montand, Toshiro Mifune and a somewhat damp squib of a romantic interest in Eva Marie Saint, and the off-track chicanery has dated badly. But the racing sequences are thrilling particularly because the technology of the cars appears so primitive; grand prix racing looks pretty dangerous, and its no surprise to learn that many of the drivers involved in filming died within years of the films’ release.

Prophecy 1979 ***

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Having written The Omen, writer David Seltzer took inspiration from a real life environmental disaster for this 1979 horror drama, filmed in British Columbia and directed by John Frankenheimer. Robert Foxworth plays Rob, who discovers that the activities of an unscrupulous logging company are causing something bad to be put into the local water. Since this isn’t particularly dramatic as a storyline, the pollution takes the form of a gigantic skinner bear which mashes-up and mutilates the locals; the sleeping bag death is particularly gruesome. Prophecy doesn’t really work, but its heart is in the right place, and it’s a watchable trip down memory lane for horror aficionados.

Reindeer Games 2001 ***

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There’s a black Christmas in store for everyone in John Frankenheimer’s final cinematic release, a grungy thriller that found little favour with audiences or critics, but has considerable virtues as a B Movie. Ex-con Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) takes on the identity of his cell-mate Nick (James Frain) when he’s killed in a prison riot, but when he comes out of the slammer, his new persona leads Rudy to get involved with a casino heist organized by Gabriel (Gary Sinese), whose sister Ashley (Charlize Theron) was writing to Nick in jail. The casino raid itself, with the robbers dressed as Santa Claus, has a considerable bloody punch, and even if the cast seem over-qualified for the low-rent action, Reindeer games has a stark, memorably downbeat quality to it.

Seconds 1966 ****

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Very much ahead of its time, and with ideas well above its station, John Frankenheimer’s black and white thriller was a notable box-office failure, but showcases Rock Hudson’s best performance. He’s off-screen for the opening, in which a businessman agrees to pay a mysterious corporation for a rejuvenating treatment that promises to give him new life in a younger body. Becoming Rock Hudson, he’s initially pleased with his new look, but the Faustian pack comes back to haunt him. Knowing what we know now about Hudson’s private life, split between his heterosexual stud public persona and a very different off-screen life, Seconds is a low-budget sci-fi thriller that plays on the idea of guilt and identity in surprisingly powerful ways.

Black Sunday 1977 ***

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Despite testing better than Star Wars and Jaws, Black Sunday didn’t become the late 70’s sensation that producer Robert Evans anticipated on the back of his hits Chinatown and Marathon Man. But Black Sunday is a thrillingly chilling trackdown thriller with Robert Shaw as an Israeli agent knows as The Final Solution. He’s on the trail of Bruce Dern as a disillusioned Vietnam vet who plans to load a Goodyear blimp full of explosives and crashing in into the Super-bowl during play.  A pre Hannibal Lecter Thomas Harris’s novel provides some tense scenes, including a pre-Scanners exploding head, and tight screenwriting with North By Northwest’s Ernest Lehman. The variable effects in the grandstanding final sequence, shot during a real Superbowl, let the film down, but it’s easy to see why Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan saw that influenced Kill Bill and The Dark Knight Rises.