Okay, so plot-wise Stallone and Billy Dee Williams (who for most people will forever be Lando Calrissian) play two New York cops who are working an undercover beat trapping muggers. The film opens, very boldly, with a seemingly middle aged woman walking down a dangerous empty city street at night. As a couple of muggers pull out knives and attempt to mug her the woman reveals herself to be Stallone wearing a mask and stockings. I've got to say on screen it's less campy than it sounds written up. Also, I've got to say you'll need to keep a straight face during this sequence in order to enjoy the rest of the film.
So basically Hauer plays an evil Euro-terroris bomber (if anything, just as chilling as Roy Batty in Blade Runner) who moves to New York to continue his reign of terror, blowing up buildings left, right and centre. The authorities realise he's sneaked into the country but can't track him down so they decide in order to flush him out they'll train a handful of the regular NY cops in counter-terrorism tactics.
I've got to say this doesn't make a whole lot of sense and the film struggles to convince us that it would happen. Why don't they bus in some support from elsewhere? You get these rather incongruous scenes where Stallone and Lando are sitting in school desks in a darkened lecture theatre taking notes like a couple of schoolboys.
Now I guess you're thinking this sounds like I'm taking shots at this film but here's where the film succeeds, regardless of all the silly plot points, the tension in the film is awesome. As the film goes on the tension gets ramped up and up. Hauer takes people hostage and takes a personal interest in hurting Stallone and those around him. There's a brilliant foot chase with Sly and Hauer that starts in a disco and ends with Lando getting seriously cut. A great hostage scene and an awesome ending.
Reportedly Stallone had the original director fired and replaced with Bruce Malmuth (a workman director who's only other notable film is Seagal's Hard to Kill). In Hauer's recent biography he describes Stallone as a petulant actor whose ego was still too inflated by the success of Rocky. And I've got to say he definitely over shadows Dee Williams. The film's competently shot but it doesn't have the edgy realism of the earlier French Connection films. Stallone is perfect in the lead, sporting dark glasses and a shaggy beard, it makes for much more of three dimension character than many of his other roles (Cobra, I'm looking at you.)
Anyway, the final scenes are where the film truly pays off. It's a blisteringly well-edited, ultra-tense sequence that I'm not going to spoil here. Just go and watch it.
I'm not sure how different this would have been as French Connection III, but I'm glad it is it's own entity and not a shallow sequel. I can't quite imagine Gene Hackman pulling off the cross-dressing opening scene but then again, he is less muscly than Stallone so maybe it would have worked.