Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Push comes to shove...and worse
What's a drug dealer to do? He's got a really crappy clientele, lacking in serious brain functions, and the wholesalers he goes through for product could just as soon kill him as look at him. Paranoia is a part of his every day life, when he could get caught by police or killed by his rivals at any time.
The Pusher Trilogy DVD details the criminal activities of the Copenhagen underworld. It isn't any place you'd want to be. Copenhagen, yes. The drug dealers' world, no.
Pusher was an international hit in 1996. It cemented the reputation of writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn. A few years later Refn was facing bankruptcy so he and his partner made Pusher II and Pusher III, both superb films. Hopefully they put the production company back in the black.
In Pusher, Frank Jensen is a regular guy, except that he sells dope (and the characters do refer to their product as dope, one of many English words other languages have co-opted). He runs with a partner, Tonny (pronounced Tony), an impulsive type guy who brags about sexual conquests in very graphic terms. Tonny has the English word RESPECT tattooed to his scalp, but he gets little of it. Frank gets a request from a customer to make a large buy, brown heroin, but it has to be by tomorrow. Jensen goes to an underworld big shot, Milo (pronounced Mee-lo), a Balkan man who runs a restaurant, cooks and bakes. Milo promises him the product but warns Frank that he already owes Milo 50,000 kroner, and this will run his tab to 230,000 kroner. At today's rates that's about US$50,000. In one of those situations that happen, the cops show up as the transaction is going down, Frank runs, jumps into the shallow part of a lake and dumps the heroin. The cops hold him for 24 hours but have to let him go. In the meantime they show him a statement that they've gotten out of Tonny. Frank gets out, finds Tonny at a bar and beats him with a baseball bat.
The rest of Pusher is Frank's attempts to pay Milo what he owes him without getting killed by Milo or his chief henchman, Radovan.
If I thought that movie was nightmarish, Pusher II compounded it. Tonny, now with some brain damage from the beating inflicted on him by Frank, gets out of prison. He goes back to his father, the Duke, who runs a hot car ring. Next to the drug dealers, these guys are pussycats, but they're still criminals and still deadly when protecting their enterprises. Tonny can't do anything right. He steals a Ferrari, thinking it will please the Duke, only to enrage his dad because they only steal a car like that to order. The rest of the movie is one long slide for Tonny, as he screws up and incurs the wrath and derision of everyone around him. Finally he explodes in violence. It is something that has been coming on, but he has been repressing it until the moment. Like Popeye, "It's all I can stands, I can't stands no more!" Tonny goes after the man who is disrespecting him the most. The last we see of Tonny, he is heading out of town on a train, carrying a baby boy a prostitute claims is his.
When I was describing the movie to my wife, who wouldn't have watched it because of the subject matter, I told her that so many drugs were ingested in this movie I felt stoned when the end credits rolled.
Pusher III goes back to Milo, the underworld kingpin. Milo seems like an easygoing guy. Until someone messes with him. In this final entry in the trilogy Milo is trying to transact drug deals while cooking for his daughter's wedding. The story takes place during one day. Situations, going from bad to worse to even worse, pile up on Milo until his easygoing goes hard. He shows that like everyone else in the trilogy, when pushed he comes back with more than a shove. The last scenes, where he and his former top henchman, Radovan, whom he recruits out of retirement for this one last task, do the preparations for disposing of two bodies, is one of the most graphic and gory scenes I've ever watched in any movie. By the time it was assaulting my eyeballs I'd gone so far that I felt obliged to stick it out. It taxed my tolerance for the sight of viscera and gore, and was over the line, an indulgence by the writer/director. Still, the movie itself was so good I thought with a few cuts (and there are more than enough "cuts" of the gruesome kind in this movie) it could be made acceptable to a wider audience.
The trilogy is unrated, and there are scenes that could earn it the dreaded NC-17 rating if it were submitted to the MPAA ratings board. The acting in all three films is by actors I haven't seen before, and is universally superb. I was totally convinced I was watching real people doing real things. In many ways it reminded me, in spirit if not in fact, of The Godfather trilogy. It's set on a much smaller scale, rather than the epic proportions of the Mafia saga. But criminals are criminals when they're going after something. Whether they're bigtime crooks or smalltime, American or Danish, these are people you don't want to meet or do business with.
If you've got a strong stomach I'm recommending these films. Otherwise, don't chance them. I might mention I got my trilogy on loan from the county library. I'm not sure they know the content of these films.