How Nicolas Winding Refn Gambled on Pusher II and III

A look at director Nicolas Winding Refn’s sequels to his cult hit ‘Pusher.’

 


Having found himself in debt after directing Fear X (2003) Nicolas Winding Refn made two back-to-back sequels to his breakthrough movie Pusher (1996) to get out of financial trouble. Refn felt Fear X was his “best and most ambitious film” to date and was wounded by its perceived failure. The documentary Gambler (Phie Ambo 2006) covers Refn’s struggle with bankruptcy and how making more Pusher movies was the only real choice for Refn. The original ended with Frank’s (Kim Bodnia) fate unresolved as he found himself out of cash and being hunted down by Serbian drug dealer Milo (Zlatko Bulic) and his associates. Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands focuses on Frank’s former friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) as he tries to get his life back on track after spending time in prison.

Pusher II: With Blood on my Hands

Hapless skinhead Tonny might have RESPECT tattooed on the back of his head, but nobody respects him, especially not Smeden (Leif Sylvester), his estranged father who regards Tonny as a clown and wants nothing much to do with him. Smeden owns a garage and operates a car thief ring so Tonny steals a Ferrari to impress his father, but is too daft to realise the opportunistic theft of such an expensive item attracts too much heat.

 
 

Tonny then teams up with the equally hopeless Kurt ‘the Cunt’ to conduct the worst, and quite possibly the funniest drug deal in history. Unfortunately this transaction is with Milo, who may see the funny side of Kurt flushing his stash down the toilet, but still demands to be paid. There is a vague hint at Frank’s fate with Milo asking Tonny if he’s seen his old friend around recently suggesting he may have escaped Copenhagen. Tonny is also having trouble with his ex, the mother of his child who hates him for impregnating her and treats their child as a burden.

Winding Refn likes to put his characters in situations where they are cornered and finding a way out seems impossible. Using the same low-key gritty style as the original, Refn mixes social realism with moments of transcendence. Though unremittingly bleak, Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands is also very funny. Mikkelsen is able to make Tonny sympathetic despite his criminal tendencies and the various humiliations heaped upon him. It all leads to a tender, moving finale with Tonny finally gaining a measure of respect and perhaps a new start.

Pusher III: I Am the Angel of Death

With the success of Pusher II assured Winding Refn was able to make another sequel, this time focusing on Milo as he deals with drug addiction, Albanian gangsters, and his daughter’s birthday party. Milo gets a shipment of ecstasy instead of heroin and reluctantly agrees to sell it. There is a new generation of dealers on Copenhagen’s streets and Milo is a little out of his time. He has no idea how to deal ecstasy, or even that what he is trying to sell is actually confectionary. Now in debt to the Albanians Milo has to work for them and finds himself under the kind of pressure he’s used to putting other people under.

Though not as good as the earlier films Pusher III: I Am the Angel of Death still holds the attention. Much of this is down to Zlatko Bulic’s performance. Milo is no longer as fearsome and must turn to his enforcer Radavan (Slavko Labovi?) from the first film. In Pusher Radavan was the kind of guy who would tear your kneecaps off, but there is a remarkable scene where this terrifying enforcer sweetly explains to Frank how he dreams of opening his own restaurant. Now older and bespectacled, Radavan has realised his dream of being a restaurateur and he is wary of returning to his former life.

Pusher Spin-Offs

Both sequels did well enough at the Danish box-office and through international sales to get Winding Refn back in the black. After a brief detour into British television directing an episode of ITV’s Miss Marple series Winding Refn made Bronson (2008) and reunited with Mads Mikkelsen starring Viking movie Valhalla Rising (2009). Pusher has inspired a couple of British remakes; a low-budget version set in Leicester amongst the Hindi community directed by Assad Raja, and a forthcoming film by Luis Prieto starring Richard Coyle as Frank. Zlatko Bulic will apparently be reprising his role as Milo for the latter.