Dir/scr: Nicolas Winding Refn. Den. 2004. 96mins

After Pusher and Bleeder,Nicolas Winding Refn's third low-life drama could easily have been called Loser,with its portrait of a small-time thug on the skids. Going back to realistroots after a bold detour with the US-set existential thriller Fear X,Denmark's Refn offers his most confident feature yet, pushing skinhead Tonny -the sidekick figure in 1996's Pusher - to centre stage, and providingstar Mads Mikkelsen with a terrific showcase.

Only nominally a sequel, PusherII's stand-alone quality should mean that international sales won't behampered, while its intelligence and pitch-black wit will ensure major festivalpresence (it played recently in the Cinema of the Future: Sturm und Drangsiderbar at Rotterdam). This should be the film that finally cements Refn'sinternational status.

The film starts with Tonnyreleased from jail, with much of his former cocky steam knocked out of him, andhoping to return to his old ways. However, life offers nothing butdisappointment. He goes to work for his father, leading Copenhagen gangsterSmeden, aka 'the Duke' (Sylvester), but the old man and his associates are nonetoo happy to have him around. One friendly face is O (Hagen-Tarberg), but he,frustratingly for Tonny, is the old man's favoured adoptive heir.

Meanwhile, Charlotte(Sorensen), Tonny's erstwhile girlfriend, has had a baby and insists that Tonnyis the father. To make things worse, Tonny happens to be around when boorishpimp Kusse Kurt ('Kurt the Cunt') (Nielsen) botches a drug deal.

The film's great subtlety isits concentration on the psychological pressures on Tonny - the constanthumiliations imposed by everyone who sees him as an irredeemable loser. In abitterly comic scene, Tonny visits a brothel but is unable to perform, whiletwo prostitutes can barely hide their amused contempt.

The universe Refn depicts isfrighteningly loveless, and the characters are repellent almost withoutexception- vicious, selfish and mutually exploitative, fuelled by theirappetites for sex and drugs. Tonny himself is like a not terribly intelligentchild, inarticulate, needy and pathetically attached to his increasinglythreadbare self-image as a hard man.

The further we are drawninto a Copenhagen underworld of hoods, hookers, pimps and other lowlifes, themore the film seems headed towards a worldview as pessimistic as, say, GasparNoe's. A violent outcome seems inevitable, yet against expectations, Refnprovides an open ending that, arguably, offers a glimmer of hope, evenredemption, for Tonny.

Darker in tone, yet visuallyless abrasive than either its predecessor or Bleeder, Pusher IIshows greater depth, both in its investigation of the discontents of machismoand in its reworking of the post-Mean Streets low-life crime genre.

Mikkelsen's Tonny, at onceboneheaded, scary and oddly tender, adds subtle new shadings to the broadcharacterisation seen in Pusher, and a strong cast makes the underworldmilieu at once real and nightmarish.

In particular, Pusherfans will be tickled by a brief, show-stopping return of Zlatko Buric as thegenially chilling Yugoslav gangster Milo. Taut editing and harsh, occasionallystylised, photography add to the intensity, the only false touch being asometimes heavy-handed soundtrack of rock and electronica. With Pusher IIIalready in the pipeline, former enfant terrible Refn is more than fulfillinghis early promise.

Prod co: NWR Prods
Int'l sales:
Nordisk Film
Den dist:
Nordisk Film
Henrik Danstrup
Morten Soborg
Prod des:
Rasmus Thjellesen
Anne Osterud
Keli Hlodversson, PeterPeter
Main cast:
Mads Mikkelsen, LeifSylvester, Kurt Nielsen, Oyvind Hagen-Tarberg, Anne Sorensen, Zlatko Buric