This French drug-running drama is a slick but over-familiar cops-and-robbers thriller

A drug-running French drama set in 1970s Marseille called The Connection? You could be forgiven for thinking that Cédric Jimenez’s second feature is a Gallic remake of William Friedkin's 1971 Oscar-winning classic. But strip away the obvious parallels – the movies are both, in fact, based on the same real-life events – and the film actually has far more in common with Michael Mann's cops-and-robbers thriller Heat than it does The French Connection.

Like Heat, this is a tale of two tough guys on either side of the law. One is Gaëtan "Tany" Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), a notorious kingpin smuggling vast amounts of heroin to the US; the other is Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin), an indefatigable magistrate determined to bring him to justice.

From this familiar set-up Jimenez piles on the tropes. Incorruptible cop whose obsession with his job strains his relationship with his wife? Check. Ruthless criminal who begins to display a touch of humility? Check. Ambitious gangster who betrays his friend and boss? Check. “Drop it, magistrate," Michel is told at one point. "It goes too high up.”

The Connection is a genre exercise by a director finding his feet – slick, sure, but lacking Heat's taut set pieces and the De Niro-Pacino star wattage. That Jimenez attempts to recreate that film's famous diner scene – by having Michel and Tany only come face to face once, in a candid showdown on the side of the motorway – also highlights the absence of originality going on here.

Scene by scene, however, it looks excellent: a gritty evocation of Seventies crime dramas, steeped in a period detail that doesn't ever feel kitsch. Elevating the film further still are the performances: Lellouche, particularly, breathes life into Jimenez and Audrey Diwan's script, his nonchalant veneer crumbling as his power begins to wane. Jimenez deserves credit, too, for the ending. Yes, it may be slow in arriving, but when it comes it hits like a body blow: bold and devastating.