Nicolas Winding Refn's 1996 Danish crime thriller Pusher came out in the middle of the wave of post-Quentin Tarantino underworld chic, but it has more in common with the naturalistic cops-and-robbers movies of the early '70s, dosed with just a little of Lars von Trier's artificial austerity. Kim Bodnia stars as a low-level dealer who borrows some drugs on credit from local crime boss Zlatko Buric; when the deal goes sour, he's forced to shake some make-good money out of his deadbeat customers. As Refn counts down the days and ratchets up the tension, Pusher shifts from a subdued lowlife sketch, with lots of raunchy conversation between Buric and his horndog ex-con buddy Mads Mikkelsen, to a nail-biting look at a man running out of options.
After Refn made an unsuccessful English-language debut with 2003's Fear X, he returned to Denmark to shoot parts two and three of "The Pusher Trilogy." But the new films aren't a continuation. They're two new tales of criminal woe, featuring supporting players from Pusher: Mikkelsen, who comes back as an impotent porn-addict working for his disapproving car-thief father in Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands, and Buric, who spends Pusher III: I'm The Angel Of Death preparing for his daughter's 25th birthday celebration and unleashing unholy wrath on some uncooperative colleagues.
The long layoff didn't dull Refn's ability to tell a pulpy, twisty crime story. Like the first Pusher, the second and third installments turn on crazy misfortune: unexpected car accidents, unplanned pregnancies, mistaken identities, food poisoning, and the like. And while Refn's style is more kinetic than ever, it's no flashier than it was 10 years ago. If anything, he's gotten better at downplaying dialogue and camera moves in favor of a few well-chosen shots, typically framed in front of big windows or in crowded rooms—the better to emphasize how hard it is to separate the private from the public in a criminal enterprise.
Pusher II works best when it's dwelling on the disconnect between Mikkelsen's lurid imagination and his disappointing reality, though it starts to fade when it becomes about the strained relationships of fathers and sons. (The movie's message in a nutshell: "I didn't ask to be born.") But the gut-churningly nasty Pusher III practically justifies the whole series, as it digs deep into the angst of a drug kingpin—a junkie himself—nagged by a thousand little business details and taunted by all the young, carefree libertines he sees enjoying themselves at his drug dens. Like everybody else in the Pusher films, Buric contemplates what it would take to leave the mob life behind. And like everybody else, he decides he wants to get better without getting well.
A.V. Club Rating:
Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands B
Pusher III: I'm The Angel Of Death A-