Friday, April 11, 2014


He [Tonny] is very much a sidekick in his own movie - Mads Mikkeksen

If you read this site regularly you'd know I'm a big fan of Nicholas Winding Refn. I've written about the majority of his filmography on here and he's one of the few young-ish/non-master filmmakers to get a "cinema of..." installment. But at the same time, I'm really not a fan of his early work. Prior to Fear X, which laid the groundwork for all of his future films, Refn was more of a guerrilla style filmmaker who embraced handheld camerawork & grittiness like every other young indie filmmaker in the 90's who looked up to Robert Rodriguez or John Cassavetes in a confused mis-guided way. Pusher & Bleeder (Refn's first two films) were full of gangsters, thugs & drug dealing for the most part. The goings-on in his work remain the same today: the criminal underworld, gangsters, and an almost immature exhibition of violence. But there's a beauty in everything he’s done style-wise since Bronson that makes his work so good (personally, I think it was Refn's unspoken exclusion from the Danish film scene that inspired him to move away from that cinema verite style and embrace the glossier, cleaner style that most people know him for today).
I know it’s strange to write about the middle film in a trilogy but Pusher 2 is quite different from the others. After watching the first Pusher I really had no desire to finish the series but an employee at the now closed video store; World Of Video, convinced me to give it a shot...and I was pleasantly surprised. If anything it's is a loose sequel in that it takes a smaller/supporting character from the first film ("Tonny") and makes him the main character this time around. The character of Tonny is the last person you'd expect to have an entire film based on. In Pusher he's essentially a sidekick that gets written out of the story in the first half. You honestly forget about him at the end of the first Pusher
Tonny shows a prison tattoo to his unimpressed father; "The Duke"
Pusher 2 picks up with Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) after just being released from prison. This is hardly a story about an ex-con trying to rehabilitate to life on the outside or doing his best to not get pulled back in to a life of crime. Instead Tonny goes straight from prison to being a gangster again (even after discovering he’s a dad). It's almost as if his time in prison meant nothing. Tonny hopes to work for his father; "The Duke" - a respected criminal with a lucrative chop shop operation. The only problem is that The Duke pretty much hates his immature son and considers him an embarrassment. Throughout the film The Duke berates & disrespects his son Tonny to point where it gets ridiculous (Tonny does bring it on himself at times). But like a sad puppy, Tonny continues come back and vie for his father's love no matter what. There's an important subplot in Pusher 2 involving "Milo" (the Serbian drug kingpin from the first Pusher film and the main character in the third installment) and there's plenty of violence and other typical elements that make a gangster movie what it is, but at the end of the day Pusher 2 is really a drama about a son wanting to be accepted by his father. Refn just disguises all of that underneath a typical gangster story. I've read conflicting stories on why he made Pusher 2. Some believe Refn put no thought in to it. He needed to make a few quick films to get out of debt so he capitalized on the popularity of the first Pusher film and quickly churned out a sequel for the money. Others seem to think the real life relationship between Nicolas Refn and his father Anders Refn (also filmmaker) was the inspiration behind the relationship between Tonny and The Duke. Perhaps Refn's motivation was a little bit of both. I don't doubt that he made it for financial reasons, but maybe his subconscious kicked in during the writing process or while in pre-production and he drew inspiration from his personal life.

Much of this film's success is owed to Mads Mikkelsen's lead performance. I don't know if it’s his face or the vibe he gives off when he's acting but I can never picture another actor in any of his roles like I do so many other actors. Tonny is an interesting and surprisingly complex human being. He's a big immature child trapped in a man's body with grand illusions of being some big time gangster. Part of me dislikes him and wants nothing to do with him. Yet we somehow sympathize for him due to all the abuse he takes from his father and everyone else around him. No one else could have played the role of Tonny as well as Mads and not many filmmakers would dedicate an entire film to an unimportant sidekick character.

A big reason as to why I'm so critical of Refn's early work is because I was introduced to him through stuff like Fear X and Valhalla Rising. I'm more a fan of his slower, Kubrick-influenced stuff. I was a late comer to the Pusher series (I first saw the Pusher films only a few years ago). In retrospect I kind of appreciate the whole series because it showed Refn's growth as a person. For me, the first Pusher film represented a piece of work made by someone incredibly young (which Refn was at the time) with dreams of becoming the next Robert Rodriguez, who watched Mean Streets WAY too many times and still got the wrong message that Scorsese's early film tried to deliver. There's actually quite a few worthy comparisons between Mean Streets & Pusher. Both films are gritty/guerrila-style stories about lower-tier gangsters juggling women problems & unstable/lose cannon friends that get in way over their heads with people far more powerful than them. Both films even end on a negatively ambiguous note.
It's no mystery that Refn thinks gangsters are "cool", even though he did try to show the negative side of that lifestyle with the Pusher series. But from the score, the overall tone and even the advertising for the first Pusher - Nicholas Winding Refn's debut came off more like a "cool cocaine-induced indie gangster flick" instead of the depressing life lesson that it really should have been. However Pusher 2 makes up for all that. The Refn who made Pusher 2 was clearly a slightly more mature adult.


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