It's the rare crime film that balances the vicarious thrill of rampant illegality with the real-world desperation of broken souls who are nearly always one wrong move away from a wretched end. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's "Pusher" trilogy -- showing this weekend at the American Cinematheque over two days -- are such movies, character-overlapping slash-and-burners about underworld types who discover the pitfalls of vulnerability in their profession when it's least advantageous.
Refn was a brash young man in his 20s when he made the first "Pusher" in the mid-1990s (released in the U.S. initially in 1999), and the film practically vibrates with youthful aggression, sly humor and gathering tension, hurling itself forward like a junkie toward the next fix. The stripped-bare tale centers on Frank (Kim Bodnia), a two-bit Copenhagen dealer who suddenly finds himself in a race to make up a botched heroin deal to Milo (Zlatko Buric), a mumbling Serbian gangster who operates out of (and cooks at) a dingy bar/diner.
As punchy mood-setting scenes give way to a full-throttle crisis pitch, Refn delivers a stinging portrait of the peculiar irony of one criminal's solitude, that the emotionally closed-off Frank doesn't realize exactly how alone he is until a world of hurt is on his heels.
The next film, "Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands" (2004), trains Refn's restless yet clear-eyed sights on Frank's ex-sidekick from the first film, Tonny, wonderfully played by the decadent-lipped, melancholy-eyed actor Mads Mikkelsen. A dim bulb pleasure-seeker fresh from prison, Tonny is eager to prove his worth as earner and son to his crime boss father (Leif Sylvester Petersen), known as the Duke. Routinely called a loser by everyone in his orbit -- he practically invites abuse by sporting a tattooed "respect" on the back of his bald head -- Tonny nevertheless deals himself into a debt-repaying corner that forces him to choose servitude or violent escape.
The introduction of a baby that Tonny supposedly fathered feels worrisome initially -- is this a sign of cheap peril to come or forced sentiment? -- but in Refn's skilled street-realist hands, the child becomes a potent, wailing metaphor for Tonny's own dilemma of rudderless need.
The plot of the 2005 entry "Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death" is the most instantly reminiscent of a gangster movie touchstone: the snorting-smuggling-and-meatball-making sequence that precipitated Henry Hill's arrest in "Goodfellas." Here, Refn puts an aged, heroin-addicted, baggy-eyed Milo front and center as he tries to stay dope-free long enough so he can do the cooking and play host for his daughter's 25th birthday party, while simultaneously placating some snarling young Albanians who wonder where their Ecstasy shipment has gone.
If "Pusher III" is the trilogy's least effective, that may be because the soured-deal plot line is by now a given, and its theme is the simplest: Old habits die hard (and, in the case of an extended body disposal sequence, quite gruesomely to boot). As the day's responsibilities increasingly test Milo's ability to cope, it's becoming clearer that he is already a dinosaur kingpin: a depressive relic in a euphoria pill world.
That said, Refn's accomplishment with these films is formidable and fleet, the rush of suspense, black humor and swift violence given nimble shading through the character reflection and queasy redemption at the heart of each brutal, gut-punch narrative. Even Refn's use of music -- whether a spare piano or screeching metal -- is meant to mirror frames of mind, not compensate for what's missing on screen. Despite the vice-like grip fate has on his protagonists, with the "Pusher" trilogy Refn should consider his own contract with discerning crime movie addicts paid in full.
MPAA rating: Unrated
A Magnolia Pictures release. Director Nicolas Winding Refn. Writers Refn, Jens Dahl. Producer Henrik Danstrup. Director of photography Morten Soborg. Editor Anne Osterud.
Running times: "Pusher," 1 hour, 45 minutes; "Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands," 1 hour, 36 minutes; "Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death," 1 hour, 42 minutes.
Exclusively today and Saturday at the American Cinematheque, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood (323) 466-3456.