Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn ("Bleeder") has produced that rarest of things - a trilogy that starts out good and ends up great.
If the first film, "Pusher," seems a little lesser than the two that follow it is only because the 1996 film, only now being released in the U.S., feels just a wee bit dated, it's style already familiar from already seen contemporaries like "Trainspotting." Each film begins with the slammed announcement of the five main characters we will be following and each film follows the same basic outline - a drug dealer bungles a deal and is in deep trouble with those he owes - but all have a vastly different impact.
"Pusher" - Frank (Kim Bodnia, "Nightwatch"), Vic (Laura Drasbæk), Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen, "Open Hearts, "King Arthur"), Milo (Zlatko Buric, "Dirty Pretty Things"), Radovan (Slavko Labovic)
"Pusher," which plays out over one week's time that is announced by daily title cards, is like a Copenhagen cinema verité edition of "Mean Streets." Frank is a slick street dealer who pals around with Tonny, a funny, impulsive would-be tough guy who sexualizes every conversational exchange when he's not showing off his questionable kick boxing skills. The two are introduced trying to sell a 50K bag to a guy who only has 45 and wants a deal. Pragmatic Frank simply takes his money and lightens the product. The next day he sees a big score float before his eyes when a buddy from jail asks for 200 grams of brown, which Frank prices at 700 per. Frank visits Milo, negotiates for 550, then returns to his buyer asking for 900. But the deal goes bad and Frank loses the drugs and never gets the money, which an initially friendly Milo grows increasingly uglier about collecting.
And while "Pusher" carries the stamp of guerilla filmmaking with its jumpy, jerky, in your face hand held camera, it also has moments of surreal style, such as an Asian restaurant scene where Frank and Tonny seem suspended in a bubble of black, lit by the light of a dramatic, table side aquarium. Frank (actor Bodnia looks like Tom Sizemore crossed with Jeremy Piven) and Tonny both have rather infantile views of sex. Frank refuses to sleep with the woman he cares for, Vic, because she's a prostitute ('I'm not a whore. I'm a champagne girl') and Tonny turns everything into a crude joke. The actors work well together, so that when Tonny drops from the film early in the day on Thursday, the film loses some of its coke fueled vitality.
To his credit, though, Refn replaces that energy with a downward spiral of bleakness, including a sudden, shocking suicide, a sick dog and a romantic promise broken and revenged that leaves Frank literally and emotionally destitute.
With Blood on my Hands: Pusher II (2004) - Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen, "The Green Butchers"), Smeden (Leif Sylvester), Charlotte (Anne Sørensen), Kusse-Kurt (Kurt Nielsen), (Øyvind Hagen-Traberg)
Eight years after "Pusher," Refn thankfully picks up his series again and molds his same theme into films about fathers and sons and fathers and daughters. "Pusher II" focuses on Tonny, once again being released from prison and still with sex on the brain. He visits his father, Smeden (known as the Duke), on the docks, looking for a job, but dad will have nothing to do with him if he's in debt, which Tonny always is. A much younger son by a different mother, Valdemar, is obviously and painfully preferred. Tonny hires two prostitutes and then is frustrated by his inability to perform. Ever the eternal f*&#-up, Tonny steals a Ferrari to impress his dad, but dad lambastes him for the rash action - one never steals a luxury car without having an order for one first.
Then, ironically, his friend Gry (Maria Erwolter) informs him that her best friend, Charlotte, has had a child by him - a boy. Initially reluctant to have anything to do with the boy, Tonny's feelings change as he is continually put down by dad, who is, he discovers, the supplier of his drug dealing partner on, of course, a deal which just went very bad. Everything comes to a head and one of the most jaw-droppingly disastrous wedding receptions ever filmed.
Refn drops the daily conceit and gives "Pusher II" a slightly less grungy look, still punctuated with driving rock numbers like the first film. It's great to have Mads back and the actor makes his lunkhead character poignant (Tonny has RESPECT tattooed across the back of his head, a regard he has trouble obtaining). In many ways, "Pusher II" resembles 2005's Cannes winner "L'Enfant," another film about a posturing street thug who finds his humanity from the child he does not want.
I'm the Angel of Death: Pusher III (2005) - Milo (Zlatko Buric, "Dirty Pretty Things"), Milena (Marinela Dekic), Muhammed (Ilyas Agac, "Pusher II"), Rexho (Ramadan Huseini), Luan (Kujtim Loki)
Refn saves the best for last, a brutally violent, psychological portrait of "Pusher's" Milo, who is having a very bad day.
Trying to keep off the drugs himself now, Milo's introduced at an NA meeting where he tells everyone he's five days sober. He's promised his daughter he'd be clean for her 25th birthday party, an elaborate event for fifty guests which he is cooking for himself. If Tonny recalled "Mean Streets'" Johnny Boy, Milo here resembles "Goodfella's" Henry Hill, who cooks an elaborate meal as his coked-out world collapses.
Milo's thrown off guard when his expected heroin shipment turns out to be Ecstasy instead, a more modern drug that the aging kingpin has no experience with. He finds a buyer, but in his distraction allows the product to leave his hands before payment has been received. As he continues to turn out platters of food for his obnoxious, spoiled daughter, he's leaned on by all sorts of unsavory types who turn up at the celebration, including a nasty individual trying to sell an innocent looking girl into prostitution with local madame Jeanette (Valdemar's mother from "Pusher II"). It's not long before Milo's doing lines in order to try and cope. And as in "Goodfellas," be forewarned that "Pusher III" is the bloodiest entry in the series, featuring a rather explicit dismemberment that Milo must take part in between courses.
Buric gives a terrific performance as the unraveling drug lord being steamrolled by modern demands he is not equipped to deal with. The actor makes us feel sympathy for the same guy we saw torturing people in the original "Pusher." Dekic is a pip, an entitled witch who gets a gift of a month in deluxe Bolivian hotels and a truly heart-warming toast from dad (a 180 degree opposite of Duke's wedding toast in "Pusher II") only to stride into the kitchen and demand a larger cut of her next deal. Refn just has a knack for populating his films with feel real low lifes and his mean streets of Copenhagen churn into their animalistic maws.
Robin's reviews coming soon!
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