Although Joel Kinnaman has struggled to find a breakout role in the United States (his RoboCop was more of a hit elsewhere than here, and "The Killing" probably wouldn't have been killed twice if it were more than a cult hit), he's the star of his homeland's Snabba Cash series, based on a series of books by Swedish author Jens Lapidus (retitled Easy Money over here). The first film followed his character, Johan "JW" Westlund, an economics student sucked into the criminal underworld while trying to finance his high-class lifestyle. At the end of the film, he was carted off to prison, having been forced into a corner by a number of double-crosses and betrayals.
This second film picks up a few months after the events of the original. JW has been on his best behavior in prison, developing a stock market computer program for one of his old college friends. He's actually so ready to turn over a new leaf, he's made friends with Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic), a hitman who betrayed JW, and whom JW later shot. As a result of their fighting, Mrado is confined to a wheelchair, but doesn't bear a grudge. Meanwhile, Jorge, Mrado's one-time target, continues to try and find footing in the drug business, successfully smuggling a large quantity of coke into the country in rubber ducks. He sets up a business deal that ought to make himself and his friend very rich, but they lose the coke and find themselves in a heap of trouble as the day of the deal approaches.
To be frank, the gangster material in Easy Money is not particularly interesting. Realistic crime films (particularly those that play around with the differences between upper and lower class) seem to be increasingly popular overseas (the Pusher trilogy comes to mind), and little of what's on tap here is anything new. When JW exits prison, he discovers that his old friend has, of course, betrayed him, and sold the program as his own. JW is then forced to turn back to Mrado and his criminal ways to get by, despite his desire to do better. The drug deal with Jorge and Russian gangsters also follows a familiar trajectory, with the elements at play in the eventual meeting adding up to the most likely payoff. The most impressive aspect of film's thriller aspirations is the way editor Theis Schmidt manages to weave big moments in the film's three stories together into concurrent dramatic climaxes. Plenty of thrillers will do this for a finale, but Schmidt employs this multiple times, an impressive dramatic juggling act that gives the whole film the sensation of a smoothly-running engine.
Still, the film is not a total wash. Admittedly, I did not see the previous chapter, so perhaps this theme is a holdover, but All in the Family might've been a better title for this entry, as almost every character deals with a parental crisis of some sort. Mrado deeply misses his daughter, Lovisa, writing a letter to her he cannot bring himself to send. Jorge struggles to deal with his dying mother, brushing off repeated pleas from his sister to go to the hospital and pay her a final visit, only to break down with regret once he finds himself hiding in her house. The film even opens with a boat worker, involved in Jorge's drug smuggling operation, saying a prayer to his wife and daughters, apologizing for breaking the law. There are always thematic concepts of "family" in mobster films, but it's fairly rare for the term to be taken literally, an idea that helps humanize the film's many characters.
The most compelling arc in the film is that of JW's old friend Mahmoud (Fares Fares), who is also struggling with a family conflict. Mahmoud owes a massive debt to Radovan (Dejan Cukic), the kingpin, and has no means to pay it. He visits his sister's wedding, where he feuds with his father, who is disgusted that his son has turned to a life of crime. Later, Mahmoud is caught stealing the money out of his sister's cards by another guest. When the film begins, he is wracked with guilt and acting out of desperation, but when his father confronts him nearer the end, he finally snaps, spitting in his father's face and confessing to his sister, who was trying to defend him. In a very short space of time, director Babak Najafi and screenwriter Maria Karlsson convey a great deal of Mahmoud's relationship with his father (and his father's history), and Fares gives a moving performance, much richer and more emotional than his supporting role calls for. His final scene, a surprise reunion with an old friend, gets to the heart of Hard to Kill's use of family and friends to round out its characters beyond their gangster movie trappings.
Easy Money: Hard to Kill takes the simple route, putting Joel Kinnaman front and center. It's somewhat like the poster for the first movie, just lazier -- whoever designed this one couldn't be bothered to fill Kinnaman's torso with pictures of some of the other characters. The single-disc Blu-Ray release comes in a standard Viva Elite case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
The film's overcast palette doesn't exactly offer many opportunities for this 2.39:1 1080p AVC presentation to really pop off the screen. Contrast is a touch weak, appearing more gray than an inky black, robbing the picture of some depth and dimension, but it appears otherwise accurate to the look that Najafi and cinematographer Aril Wretblad are looking for, with heavy blues and grays. Detail is reasonably strong, and I didn't spot any instances of banding, which is always the first thing I'm looking for in movies that take place in such dingy, dimly-lit environments. Audio is available in two flavors, an original Swedish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, and an English dubbed version. I stuck with the OG audio and was, as with the picture, satisfied but never surprised by the basic qualities of the high-def audio, which offers punch in the action sequences, and is adequate otherwise. The music, by Jon Ekstrand, is as moody as the photography, offering low tones and tense beats that pulsate more than they vibrate with energy. English subtitles are provided.
None, other than an original theatrical trailer.
For the first 40 minutes, Easy Money: Hard to Kill doesn't seem like it has much to add to the gangster-thriller genre, but the remaining hour reveals a surprising thematic heart to the film. The Blu-Ray is light in the extras department, but the film is lightly recommended.
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