As Drive takes in millions of dollars and is heralded as a birth of a new cool movement in cinema it’s probably a good time to finally sit down and watch the Pusher trilogy, Nicolas Winding Refn’s sharp crime dramas, set in Copenhagen and shot with an eye for the real.
Every country in the world has a film like the first Pusher. A street level view of crime in the capital, hand to mouth criminals struggling to gain a foothold in the underworld. Learning the tricks and taking the consequences for their mistakes. Think La Haine or Mean Streets for the obvious comparisons. It’s probably not unfair to say that Refn watched and enjoyed those two films immensely. Such is the sprawling tree map of cinema influences
Pusher gives us Frank, a tough dealer of whatever he can lay his hands on, played by Kim Bodnia with a swaggering confidence that recalls Tom Sizemore before the cocaine and dildos took over. He’s accompanied by Tonny, a tattooed skinhead with wild eyes and a vacuum cleaner approach to drugs, alcohol and hedonism in general. Together thay end up owing money to Milo, a dealer a few rungs up the ladder. Not original except for the setting (who would’ve thought Coepnhagen had crime!) Pusher nevertheless is compelling, entertaining work. Not striving for social commentary like La Haine nor as fanciful as Mean Streets.
Now comes the intersting part; nine years later Refn revisits some of the characters from Pusher in two further films. Sequels, as Goldman intoned, are whore’s movies, made solely for profit and without creation as the primary motive. Still, these don’t feel like whore’s films. If more money was available then it sure isn’t on the screen. If anything these two are bleaker than the original, without any of the black comedy or buddy buddy to keep you going they feel more real, more visceral and at times even heartbreaking.
Tonny is the focus of Pusher 2: With Blood on my Hands. Tonny (played with startling bravery by Mads Mikkelson, witness his scene with two prostitutes.) emerges from prison scarred both mentally and physically, sexual abuse is alluded to and all his drug addictions remain firmly in check.He’s almost spent elementally and seems to have aged twenty years since we first met him. He’s thicker in the middle, lined around the eyes and eroded somehow, leaving a vulnerable core. Tonny searches out his father who doesn’t love him and in turn discovers he is a father of a child he wants nothing to do with. The ending is a testament to the power of films to instill an undeserved emotion, somehow, despite how reprehensible the character of Tonny is and the no doubt hard existence in store for his child there is an unashamed sense of hope by the time the credit’s roll.
Pusher 3: I am the Angel of Death (the subtitles make them seem like exploitation movies) deals with Milo, the richer, older dealer from the original. All set on the day of his daughter’s 25th birthday (surely a Godfather nod), Milo has to deal with a set of increasingly problematic circumstances that wouldn’t be out of place in an Eddie Murphy film if it didn’t involve mass murder, human trafficking and torture (although…..). Milo is getting on, no longer as frightening as he was and looking over his shoulder for a new breed of tough immigrant criminals. Pusher 3 is the darkest one, dealing with ageing, death and no hope for better in the future, it also has the grisliest scene. Milo and his old friend Radovan share an elongated body disposal scene that makes the ones in Pulp Fiction and Nikita seem tame.
Through the making of 2 and 3 Refn has rounded out what were very two dimensional and stereotypical characters into fully fledged humans with feelings, hopes, dreams and desires. He’s also retroactively improved the first one in the process. This isn’t a clarion call for all films to have two sequels or for the original to have been seven hours long it’s just interesting to see what can be done with some careful thought and a little bit of laying on of pathos.
In the end though the Pusher trilogy refuses to condemn it’s characters, nor absolve them of their actions and as such, walks a slightly higher line than many grubby little crime flicks.The Pusher‘s fall into neither exploitaton of nor the glamourising of a genre it makes a welcome addition to.