Pusher 2: With Blood on my Hands – Nicolas Winging Refn and one of the best sequels ever made. (film Review)
All the problems I had with Pusher are well and truly over by the time Nicholas Winding Refn takes to the second film of the trilogy. He always said he would never do another Pusher, but after the commercial failure of Fear X, his company was forced into bankruptcy and to clear the debt he decided to bring back his most successful film to date. Like the first film, authenticity was important, so his research for the second film was conducted through private meetings with ‘real’ mobsters who lived the drug trade lifestyle. The film was made almost completely chronologically, using many real people from the world he was portraying rather than actors and many real settings. Refn calls it “the girly Pusher” – I guess that is because it’s the most intelligent. (smile) He now thinks there will be at least ten versions of the film.
One of the highlights of this film, a touch that adds to the authenticity and Refn’s nickname, is the very interesting female characters portrayed in Pusher 2. Women are regularly marginalized to love interest and ‘background breast’ in this genre, and although many of the females are still wives and girlfriends, their roles are crucial and explored with depth. The result is a gripping film that casts a fresh light on the life of mobsters, drug dealers and petty criminals. One of my favorite scenes is a wedding supper in a bar where the entertainment is a stripper who will graphically simulate sex for the audience. Children are present and watching avidly. What bride wants a stripper at her wedding supper as the entertainment? I was fascinated by this gritty realism – the introduction of complex female perspectives gives it an edge over every other film of its kind and in no way introduces sentimentality or waters down testosterone’s punch. Rather the vivid presence of females doubles the richness of the narrative and heightens the complexity of their world. Pusher 2 makes all the other mob films look like they only know half the story.
The other highlight that brought the film alive for me particularly was the character of Tonny himself – played by Mads Mikkelsen who was introduced to the screen in the first Pusher, but who had become a big star by the time the second film came about. Despite this, he agreed to make the film and is a heartbreaking Tonny, a character the actor clearly has sympathy for. Tonny will leave almost every episode of the film (it is made up almost entirely of ‘moments’) humiliated anew, and we see the back of him each time with the words RESPECT tattooed into his bald head. As the film winds on, the tattoo becomes more and more ironic. Tonny was the victim of a savage beating at the hand of his best friend in film one, and this incident has left him very slightly brain-damaged. He is a little slow and therefore easily suggestible. He mistakes friend for foe and foe for friend. (Don’t we all?) It’s a concept I’d never considered – that people living these lives would suffer the consequences of physical beatings and post traumatic stress although it makes great sense when I pause to reflect.
Detail and depth in the character of Frank in the first film is expanded in the second. Tonny has a complicated relationship with his father and has just discovered he is a father himself. I guess this plot line – fathers and sons and sons and fathers is another reason Refn considers this to be the ‘girly’ pusher – it does dip into a sort of sentimental yearning at brief moments. Mikkelsen straddles these without concern looking every bit the foolish thug who could kill everyone in front of him as often as he is the puppy-eyed droop who just wants a someone to be on his side. It is his fine acting and the harsh realism of the film that save this almost sappy subtext. Rifn needn’t been worried that the film dips into sentimentalism. It cleverly never does, and this gives the film more power. Refn explored his own issues with his father through this film (perhaps another reason he thinks it’s girly) and this clarity and depth shows in the script.
‘True to life’ was the catch cry of this and the other two films when Refn was working on them, and he achieves this through his meticulous research and authenticity of sets and actors. When I said in the last Pusher review that we desperately needed a film like this to abandon glamor, I saw it in the next two Pushers. There is nothing glamorous about Tonny’s life – or that of his rather stupid father. Everyone is trying to “out tough” each other and it gets to the point where people aren’t really sure what role they play or why they play it. There is a very funny scene when a gangster called The Cunt says he needs Tonny to help him smash-up his house with the omnipresent baseball bat to trick his superiors, because he doesn’t want to lose his lush lifestyle. Immediately after this statement, we see his house, a shack of an affair littered with gaudy televisions, coke laced with arsenic to scare off thieving junkies and lost, wandering whores. It looks depressing and sad. Cunt comes across as a loser, not the clever law-defeating mobster of films like Goodfellas. (The Cunt – incidentally is played by a real life criminal. It really is his world we step into.)
Far superior to film one, Pusher 2 really does have something fresh to say and new to add to its genre.