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Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death

dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
[img_assist|nid=1248|title=Would you buy drugs from this man?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=425|height=284]
Wow, the lives of drug dealers just seem so glamorous, don’t they? If I’ve learnt anything from watching this Pusher trilogy of film set in Copenhagen, it’s that: a) Copenhagen is situated somewhere in one of the uglier, more downmarket circles of hell, at least if you’re involved in the drug trade, which, considering the course of these three films, any sane Dane would be, and b) even those successful enough in the trade lead miserable lives.

These flicks were never meant to be after school specials frightening people away from drugs out of moralistic concern or tut-tutting for some sort of public service announcement. No, mostly they seem like they’re trying to say that really bad things happen to selfish, stupid and violent people, especially if they get involved in the drug trade.

The first Pusher followed the highs and lows of Frankie, a low-level scumbag who is unremittingly awful to everyone around him. Bad things ensue. The second Pusher focussed on Frankie’s sidekick Tonny, and all his comical misadventures, and launched, surprisingly enough, Mads Mikkelsen to international superstardom, to the point where he gets roles in big budget fare like Casino Royale and the recent Clash of the Titans remake. I mean, every teenage girl and boy has got a Mads poster on their wall these days, don’t they? Out with old man Johnnie Depp, in with Mikkelsen!

Not that you really want to highlight that element on your resume.

In those two films, Milo (Zlatko Buric), played a key but small role, as an affable but monstrous mid level drug dealer, whose gently-spoken recommendations that protagonists deliver upon their obligations never obscured his frightening propensity for having people brutally tortured and executed.

He takes centre stage in the third instalment, and instead of looking like the drug lord kingpin he seemed to be in the initial instalments, he’s just another cog in the murderous machine that is Copenhagen’s drug trade.

The main plot isn’t even about drug dealing per se, but is about whether Milo can get things organised for his daughter’s birthday. This is a story set in Copenhagen, Denmark, but Milo and his daughter Milena (Marinela Dekic) are Serbian-Croatians or Serbs. Many of Milo’s friends and family are Danish or Serbs or Croatians or combinations thereof. Every other reprobate, pimp, dealer and thug he deals with is something other than Danish, with Montenegrins, Albanians, Turks, Poles and arcane combinations thereof filling out the roster.

In short, this is a flick that could be saying something about crime in Denmark, or it could just be celebrating the joys of melting pot multiculturalism in the northern icy realms.

Again, it’s a day in the life of a lifelong criminal. Lifelong criminals still have to pay the bills, cook meals for the guests, pick up balloons, go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings to stave off the smack cravings, book the function room, dispose of bodies, bribe cops, torture people for information, and murder people with a hammer.

As lurid as it sounds, it’s done in such a mundane, quotidian fashion that we’re supposed to both see it as commonplace and yet also appreciate that a person who gets used to such a life can have some pretty fucked up days and nights. And that the fuckedupedness others would find extraordinary becomes the everyday.

And what a day and night it is that we spend with Milo. Most of the flick, I have to assume, is something of a black comedy, in that everything that can go wrong, including Milo inadvertently giving food poisoning to his crew, does go wrong in ways making it almost seem like the trials and tribulations of Job, whose faith is being tested by a very malicious god. The difference is that Milo, who may or may not have been a decent man in a different life, is the epitome of the banality of evil. Of course as in every other film in the trilogy, there’s always someone worse than our protagonist.

In the other two films, though, it was Milo who was arguably the worst of the worst. As the protagonist here, he’s denuded of the mystique of the crime lord kingpin, and is just shown as a scattered, desperate, utterly amoral man who still cares about his daughter and is not shy about doing virtually anything to protect himself. The criminals around him, including those who intend to probably rip him off or kill him, are like hyenas nipping at the heels of an old lion.

Is it horrible to feel for this guy? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I sympathised with the character, but you get to share the bone-weariness after a while, and there is irony that can be appreciated over a such a man being so helpless in the face of his young daughter’s slightest displeasure.

I propose a new phrase to replace Hannah Arendt’s famous Holocaust-origin phrase regarding the banality of evil: I’m going to call it the Mundanity of Monsters in cinematic form. Even these men, with posters honouring Serb war criminals on the walls of their clubhouses, and their endless capacity for solving their problems with murder, have to worry about the little things in life, and can still show some modicum of care for people undeserving of their fate.

This flick is in no way a redemption vehicle for Milo, but he does at least have enough humanity left to save a lost soul in the form of a girl being forced into prostitution. Milo’s not exactly a knight in shining armour in this circumstance, and the worst thing is, because he’s been mixing heroin and accidentally snorting a shitload of speed (or “Polish cocaine”, as he’s informed), he’s just as likely to do what he does because he’s got more drugs in his system than an Olympic athlete, other than the last vestiges of chivalry being his motivation. But he does what he does, and it’s tempting to think that everyone will pay the price regardless.

He practically has to beg an old criminal acquaintance to help him out of his many predicaments, and Radovan, a reluctant enforcer from the first flick, returns, but he makes it clear to Milo that this will be the last time he ever gets to ask. Despite Radovan’s comfort with the civilian life (I think he owns and runs a pizza parlour), and reluctance to backslide, when he agrees, he really attacks the task with a sickening gusto.

All of the story has, despite all the drug dealing, threats, murders, body disposals, accidental drug usage, deliberate drug usage, being playing out around the greater concern of whether Milo’s going to be able to ensure Milena’s birthday party will go well, and yet even as I implied earlier that it’s comedic in its juxtaposition, I think it retains an element of pathos as well. The ending, mundane and anti-climactic as it is, is perfect for the purposes of the story: This man, this murderous and anything but gentle giant, is utterly rung out and is exhausted, but can’t even smoke in his own house. Story of every mass murderer’s life.

It’s tempting to wish a nuclear strike on Copenhagen after watching this film and this trilogy, but there’s an undeniably sure hand at the tiller of these flicks. I was prepared to write off Refn as a hack after watching the first grubby chapter in this series, but he really has been taking his storytelling, and the attendant visual accoutrements, to new and interesting, if unsettling, places. The most recent flick of his that I watched, being the tale of lifelong meathead criminal Charlie Bronson, was as interesting as it was bizarre / frightening, and clearly indicates that there’s plenty more to expect from him down the track.

7 times Zlatko is a gigantic, scary but hypnotic presence out of 10

“What the fuck? Milo, you said there was only one body. Who's that guy?”
- “An Albanian.”
“That’s okay then.” – is this ethnic cleansing? - Pusher 3: I’m the Angel of Death