Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Pusher Trilogy: The First Taste is Free the Rest Will Cost You.

While my first introduction to Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn came with a recent viewing of Bronson, which stars Tom Hardy, most mainstream audiences will probably become familiar with him when his action film Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, hit theatres. Taking the wise advice of Bob, from the blog Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind, I decided a few months back to start to explore Refn’s earlier works by watching the three films that make up The Pusher Trilogy. Although it is a trilogy, each film can easily stand alone as each film has its own self contained story.


The first installment of the series centers around Frank (Kim Bodnia), a mid-level drug dealer, who has the worst week of his life. Frank and his pal Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), spend their days dealing drugs, drinking, and bragging about their female conquests. When not hanging out with Tonny, Frank spends time with his quasi-girlfriend Vic (Laura Drasbæk). After a series of deals gone wrong, Frank finds himself owing a lot of money to his friend, and Serbian drug lord Milo (Zlatko Burić). Although Milo is a trusting man, his patience quickly runs out when people do not pay up. Frank must scramble to find a way to get Milo his money before he sees the full extent of Milo’s darker side.

Although an entertaining film, Pusher is easily the weakest film of the trilogy. This has a lot to do with the character Frank. Appearing to be much smarter than his sidekick Tonny in the beginning, it quickly becomes apparent that Frank is not as bright as he thinks he is. Though his continual bad decisions help to set up a brilliant ending to the film, watching Frank make the same mistakes over and over does get slightly tiresome in the last act. This is why the supporting character steals so much of Frank’s thunder. Everyone from Milo to the ill-treated Vic are far more intriguing characters than Frank. While the film may not pack the same punch as the other films it does a great job of setting up the seedy world in which the characters live. One thing that I found surprising about Pusher was how little on screen violence there was. Considering the situation that Frank and some of the other characters find themselves in, it is refreshing to see that Refn did not follow the same conventions as other films in its genre. Pusher may have its pitfalls, but it is still a good introduction to series.

Pusher II: With Blood on my Hands

The next film in the series, and in my opinion the best, focuses on Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen). After serving another stint in prison, Tonny goes seeking work from his father Smeden (Leif Sylvester). Smeden is a infamous mob boss, commonly referred to as The Duke, who thinks Tonny is nothing but a screw up. Reluctantly Smeden agrees to give Tonny a shot. Things begin to look up until Tonny agrees to help an old friend, Kusse-Kurt, with a drug deal. When Kusse-Kurt botches the deal, Tonny finds himself having to help fix Kurt’s mistake. If that was not enough to deal with, Charlotte, a local prostitute, claims that Tonny is the father of her infant son.

Despite being a crime film on the surface, Pusher II is really a tale about the disconnect between fathers and sons. Tonny tries his best to win over his father but is refuted at every corner. To add salt to his emotional wounds, Tonny must endure the pain of watching his father shower unconditional love on his much younger half brother. The relationship between Tonny and his father have direct implications on how Tonny views Charlotte’s handling of his own kid. Mads Mikkelsen gives a wonderful performance as Tonny. Mikkelsen brings the perfect mixture cockiness, sadness, and festering rage. He is one of the main reasons why Pusher II: With Blood on my Hands is such an engaging film.

Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death

After sitting through the first two films, Pusher 3: I’m the Angel of Death immediately became an addition to my “must see” list. The final film follows Serbian drug lord Milo (Zlatko Burić), the only character to appear in all three films, as he slowly realizes that the underworld he knows is changing around him. Five days sober, Milo routinely attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings while trying to organize a 25th birthday party for his spoiled daughter, Milena (Marinela Dekić). Despite being sober, Milo still has his foot firmly planted in the drug world. Unfortunately, a younger generation is starting to take charge and quickly Milo finds himself in an unfamiliar position, in debt to Albanian dealers. Once a king in the underworld Milo starts to see his status wilt away as the Albanians take advantage of their new found power. Struggling to juggle both his daughter’s party and the demands placed on him by the Albanians, Milo must decide whether he has any fight left in him? Or if it is time throw in the towel.

If Pusher highlighted the irresponsibleness of youth, and Pusher II focused on maturity, then Pusher III is all about getting older and knowing your limitations. Milo is no longer the loveable, cooking obsessed, drug lord that we were introduced to in the first film. Once feared, he is now seen as a joke by the younger generation. He is a man who can no longer keep up with the changing climate of the criminal landscape. Milo is used to dealing heroine but is forced to confront issues, such as human trafficking, which he would normally avoid. The film perfectly encapsulates everything that made the whole trilogy special. The characters are interesting, the tone is both gritty and humorous, and the human element s always at the forefront.

Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death is part of our The Must See List series.


  1. Excellent! Glad you liked the series...I would flip 2 and 3 in the pecking order personally - I found the third film to be an amazingly tense exercise in how tightly you can possibly wind up one single person. And Milo is so entertaining. And dangerous.

    Mads is terrific in the first two. I liked the first better than you (I found Frank to be always on the edge which lessened his ability to make wise decisions), but I do agree with a lot of what you said.

    Have you seen Valhalla Rising? Very much a fever dream and very different than the trilogy or Bronson. You may not look at Mads the same way again though...

    Can't wait for Drive.

  2. Great writeup,

    I think the Joe Pesci level beatdown that Frank gives Tonny more than makes up for the total lack of violence in the first installment.

    Mikkelsen is such a chameleon, I saw these shortly after they came out, and it took me years before I realized it was him.

    I think the third is my favorite one, it was fascinating seeing another side of Milo's character.

  3. @Bob – While 2 is my favourite film overall, 3 is a close second, I will agree that Milo is the best character of the entire series. I love when he showed up in number 2 and casually asks Tonny “if he has seen Frank lately”. I also thought that putting Milo in Narcotics Anonymous meeting was a brilliant move considering his profession.

    I missed Valhalla Rising when it played TIFF but I will have to track it down. I am on a serious Refn high after watching this series. From what I have been hearing, Drive looks to be another solid film for Refn’s growing body of work.

    @Bonjour Tristesse – You know I never thought of the Frank/Tonny scene as being reminiscent of the famous Joe Pesci scene but now that you mention it...

    Mikkelsen is truly a great actor. I have not seen all his films yet, but I have rather enjoyed the ones I did see. My cousin keeps telling me that I need to see After the Wedding as soon as possible. He just loved the film.

    I can see why 3 would be the pick for a lot of people. It is a very good film. For me 2 is where I really fell in love with the series.


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