Thursday, December 14, 2006

Overlooked DVDs of the month - THE PUSHER TRILOGY

THE PUSHER TRILOGY is hard to categorise as "overlooked". While these movie are ultra-arthouse anywhere outside Denmark, within that country they are completely mainstream genre movies. Indeed, it's thanks largely to PUSHER than Mads Mikkelsen became so famous, finally being flushed into the Hollywood mainstream as Bond baddie, Le Chiffre.

PUSHER was originally made back in 1996 by a young but ludicrously well-connected Danish director called Nicolas Winding Refn. Refn had spent much of his youth living in the US, watching Scorsese and reading Hubert Selby Jr. He got back to Copenhagen, rejected a place at the prestigious film school (unheard of!) and seemingly got handed a million squid to knock up his first celluloid feature.

The film is a fast-paced, gritty slice of life in the Copenhagen underworld. It feels a little like MEAN STREETS or LOCK, STOCK but for the Danish scene was something quite knew. Refn managed to cast a lot of the people and use a lot of the seedy locations he'd been hanging out in. Even the police office where the Pusher of the title is slapped around is real. His shooting style is to use Super 16 hand-held documentary-style camera-work. The narrative just keeps moving - we're always pushing on - and the scenario takes us in moving cars, running round Copenhagen. The electro-score is aweseome - high adrenaline, high impact. As a result, the movie feels realistic, exciting, compelling and fast-paced.

The one flaw with PUSHER is that it's evidently a movie from a director who knows Thing Zero about lighting and exposure. Sure, Refn is aiming for a dark, grungy feel, but some of the scenes are just plain badly photographed. Luckily, this just adds to the Gonzo style - the idea that we are taking a new look at a part of Danish life that has never been exposed before. Perhaps for this reason, PUSHER became a massive hit in Denmark and a cult hit in the UK. Apparently Danish gangsters felt a pride in how they'd been portrayed, and kids were running around the streets shouting, "Franke, you fuckin with me?"

What I love about PUSHER is its energy, the great comedic performance by Mads Mikkelsen as hapless criminal Tonny and the strong lead performance by Kim Bodna as Franke. The movie is rare for not glamourising drug-taking in the way that, say, THE DEPARTED, does. All the criminals live in pretty shitty circumstances. Their jobs are as routine and mundane as office jobs; their personal lives are disaster areas; and Franke basically slides into hell thanks to a deal gone wrong and getting busted by the police. I also love the fact that the "baddie", a gangster called Milo played by Zlatko Buric (DIRTY PRETTY THINGS), is such a mild-mannered looking man. Totally anonymous and all the more chilling for that. Finally, PUSHER really isn't a violent film, but for precisely that reason, when you do see some brutality it's really shocking. In short, this movie has the autheniticity, light touch and energy that
THE DEPARTED entirely lacked.

PUSHER II is my personal favourite from the trilogy. Made to get Refn out of a financial black hole in 2004, he focuses in on the story of Tonny, a minor character from the first film. While preserving the underworld setting, many of the incidental characters and the shooting style, the movie feels more polished and professional. Sure, it was still a crazy short shoot, but the scenes are better lit and the use of colour towards the end of the movie is more expressionistic and deliberate. You get a lot of what
Cameron Diaz calls "Scorsese Red".

If the first PUSHER is about a man on the run from the rozzers and the dealers, PUSHER 2 is a more introspective story. It turns out that while Tonny has the word "respect" tatooed to the back of his head, he has anything but. His father Smeden (Leif Sylvester with an awesome Elvis-style dye-job) runs a stolen-car racket and seemingly lives in a room above a garage. (Again no glamour). He mocks Tonny when he wants to join the business, showering his love and respect on his younger son and Tonny's business rival. Meanwhile, Tonny discovers he's fathered a son with a whore and gets mixed up in a bad deal with a gangster charmingly known (in real life as well in the film) as Kurt the Cunt.

Once again, we see Tonny's slow slide into hell, climaxing at a wedding party so perverse it defies description. Once again, crime really doesn't pay and it certainly isn't glamourous. Tonny may spend the film snorting prodigious anounts of bad coke, but he's also grappling with the consequent impotence and need to constantly take a shit! Despite or because of this, it's a moving story and ends on an ambiguous note reminiscent (but infintely better than) the ending of THE GRADUATE. This is, to my mind, a superb example of a genre movie turned into something more than we expect.

PUSHER III (2005) is, to my mind, a significantly worse film. It focuses on the character of the gangster Milo. What we see is an older man being counselled for his drug addiction and in danger of losing control of his gang to a younger breed of gangster, not least his daughter. He's anachronistic, trying to push smack but being stiffed with a consigment of E he has no idea what to do with.

Refn uses his old successful tactics: characters from the underworld playing themselves; documentary-style filming; deglamourising crime; a small part for cult anti-hero Kusse-Kurt. There's even an interesting look at immigrant life in contemporary Denmark. But the movie seems to run out of steam after about half an hour and in order to keep it going Refn resorts to some Tarantino style slash-and-clean antics which feel tired and not particularly well done. Frankly, you can watch PUSHER 1 and PUSHER 2 and not miss anything of value.

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