#275: Flickering Lights (2001)

Flickering Lights (eller Blinkende Lygter, på dansk) is an action-comedy about four small-time Copenhagen gangsters who give up on petty crime and jet off on a conquest to sunny Barcelona. Unfortunately for them, their car breaks down and they are forced into a depricit old farm house in the Danish woodlands. Plastering up the damaged walls, fixing the doors and throwing away their guns, the crew try to forget their incriminating past-lives and open up a family restaurant.

Although it didn’t receive much international acclaim, Flickering Lights was made to be seen by mainstream audiences (the Danish Broadcasting Corporation helped finance production). The fish-out-of-water premise is appealing, but the mixture of broad slapstick and dark, broody Scandinavian humour fails to get into stride. It’s also a completely predictable chain of events. Not because the story is derivative, worse than that, the movie starts with an infuriatingly comprehensive flash-forward into the future, where any potential unexpected thrills are abolished.

If you know anything about semi-mainstream Danish movies, you’ll be aware of the name Anders Thomas Jensen. A prolific screenwriter (for works such as the Dogme 95’s Mifune and the Kiera Knightley-starring period drama The Duchess), Flickering Lights marked his venture from pen to camera. It’s an ambitious directing debut, but it’s left in the shadows of another Danish gangster comedy from the previous called In China They Eat DogsUnsurprisingly, Jensen is credited as writer there too.

With four acting heavyweights from across Danish television & film, the performances and character dynamics are where Flickering Lights excels. Nightwatch‘s Ulrich Thomsen is the hilariously boisterous Peter who, after being shot in the stomach in the first ten minutes of the movie, spends days locked away in the farmhouse’s pantry, trying to go cold turkey from his coke addiction. Nikolaj Lie Kaas is the young dreamer Stefan who is distraught after abandoning his Copenhagen-based girlfriend. Best of the bunch, Mads Mikkelsen pops up as the tempestuous Arne, a brawler with a penchant for firearms. Lastly, there’s Søren Pilmark as the measured and paternally instinctive crew leader Torkild who tries to keep them all from boiling point. The four have a great chemistry together; an effervescent masculinity which makes Flickering Lights a just-about bearable bromance movie.

With a scattered shower of laughs and some decent characterisation, Flickering Lights is saved from being a total corn-fest. Just like the dishes the four gansters-cum-restauranters end up serving, the film isn’t as sweet and delicious as it’s ingredients would imply.

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#262: Pusher (2012)

Relishing in the unprecedented success of last year’s Drive, Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn started out in 1996 on much smaller terms, breaking the crime drama mould with a brawny tale of a Copenhagen drug dealer on the verge of breaking point. Two sequels later, Pusher is heralded as a cult classic, so it’s about time we had the inevitable English-language remake.

Much like Ryan Gosling’s spin as The Driver in Refn’s last film, Pusher‘s anti-hero Frank is a stalwart professional and perpetual loner. A hard-as-nails narcotics salesman in London’s East End, he doesn’t cheat, suffer fools or take any shortcuts. When an old prison inmate turns up wanting to score a kilo of coke, Frank turns to his old friend and Serbian kingpin Milo for a £50,000 drug loan, promising a 24-hour turnaround for the illegal goods. When the transaction goes awry, Frank finds himself stuck in a shit cyclone: taken in by the police, betrayed by his big-mouthed partner Tony and begging his mum to help pay off his crippling debts before his end of the week deadline runs out.

If Kim Bodnia was a sluggish rogue in the original film, British actor Richard Coyle brings some life and charisma into Frank’s dark world. It’s a compelling take on a character we aren’t sure whether we should detest or sympathise with, which ultimately makes his spiral into desperation all the more intriguing and destructive.

Unfortunately, Coyle’s supporting cast fail to inject a similar energy into Pusher. Zlatko Buric turns up as the mob-boss Milo, unpredictably balancing between friendliness and menace, just like he did in Refn’s trilogy. In a role that launched Mads Mikkelsen’s career, Bronson Webb is ridiculously overblown as Frank’s boisterous apprentice Tony, annoying everyone on screen and in the audience. Meanwhile, making her movie debut, supermodel Agyness Deyn plays Frank’s pole dancing girlfriend Flo. An underwritten, limited character just as in the original, it’s difficult to tell whether Deyn is destined for movie stardom as she’s only ever window dressing to Coyle’s Frank; prancing around in underwear looking glum, intoxicated and teary eyed.

The most significant difference that separates director Luis Prieto’s remake to Refn’s claustrophobic, surprisingly timeless original is it’s ultra-stylish, synthetic appearance. Prieto borrows the conventions of the modern British gangster movie, in a similar vein to Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock, and the more questionable work of Nick Love. There’s also a level of urgency in the action scenes and drug hallucinations that recalls Neil Burger’s Limitless from last year, with Simon Dennis’ glossy cinematography matched quite harmoniously to the music of British techno legends Orbital.

As a stand-alone movie, Pusher is this month’s enjoyable, but fairly innocuous British gangster joint. As a remake, it’s relatively faithful but completely unnecessary.

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PS – You can read my review of 1996’s original Pusher movie here.

063: Pusher (1996)

I’ve been living in Copenhagen for six months now. Having realised this, my best friend Mads slapped me round the face with a Nordic fish when I told him I hadn’t seen Drive director Refn’s debut feature film Pusher. Mads did the only thing possible, he bought me the DVD. I watched it.

Centred around the story of a drug pusher desperately trying to escape a rising debt to a Copenhagen drug baron, the film is brilliantly simply, unfussy and totally gripping. Filmed on a shoestring budget, the confrontational handheld camera work, fast cuts and local slang mould together to create something organically immersive.

Whether it’s Gosling as the Driver or Tom Hardy as prison battle-axe Bronson, Refn doesn’t really do conventionally likeable protagonists. With pusher Frank, he’s clearly an amoral man, but the sense of foreboding dread looming over his head is palpable and one can’t help longing for him to come up trumps with the money.

It might borrow a bit heavily from Scorsese’s plentiful representations of gangsta New York, and it might not have the strong aesthetic beauty of Refn’s later works. Regardless, seeing Pusher illustrates how capable the Danish-American director is creating gritty, red-blooded drama. Long may his harsh world live on.


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PS – Following his recent successes, Refn holds an exec producer role in a vibrant, British revamping of Pusher due out later this year. It’ll be interesting to compare the two, especially here from a Danish perspective where the original is so highly regarded. Watch this durrty space.