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Movie review: 'Easy Money' is hard to resist

Daniel Espinosa's directing, Joel Kinnaman's acting and a strong story make the Swedish film, originally titled 'Snabba Cash,' about the drug trade compelling.

July 12, 2012|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

"Easy Money"is a fine title for a film, but to truly feel the tasty flavor of this top drawer Scandinavian drug trade thriller, try rolling its original Swedish title off your tongue. Say hello to "Snabba Cash."

It was as "Snabba Cash,"Sweden'stop-grossing film of 2010, that this splendid look at why crime doesn't pay took Hollywood by storm in a wave of bootleg DVDs a few years back.

Knowing a good thing, the business couldn't get enough of director Daniel Espinosa (who segued to directing Denzel Washington in"Safe House") or star Joel Kinnaman (who went on to star in AMC's"The Killing" and the forthcoming "Robocop" remake.)

Now Americans can see what got everyone so hot and bothered starting with the involving plotting of Jens Lapidus' bestselling novel, here adapted by screenwriter Maria Karlsson. But it's more than the story that makes "Easy Money" such an impressive piece of commercial filmmaking. This jazzy crime melodrama is engrossing and exhilarating because of Espinosa's impressive command of a wide range of filmmaking skills.

As you'd expect from a film about an ambitious young man who gets involved in the drug trade because of the prospect of, yes, easy money, the director has a mastery of the mechanics of motion picture action, up to and including depicting strong violence, plus a facility for building tension and keeping viewers off-balance.

But Espinosa also has what's less looked for, an eye for small details as well as a facility for psychological complexity and quiet personal moments. Whatever it takes to keep us involved, he can provide.

The filmmaker also has the confidence — and the nerve — to start things all in a rush, to throw us right into the middle of a pair of chaotic situations without initially letting us know who is involved.

Met first is Jorge (Matias Padin Varela), a Chilean living in Sweden (the director is half Chilean). He's no sooner introduced inside a Swedish prison than he makes good his escape and promptly goes into hiding, from other local bad guys as much as from the police.

One of "Easy Money's" briefs is to present a more polyglot Stockholm than we're used to seeing, so we switch immediately to the movements of Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic), a violent enforcer for a ruthless Serbian drug cartel that controls the cocaine traffic in Sweden and is willing to do whatever it takes to stay on top.

Though Jorge and Mrado are central to the plot, the film's protagonist is JW (a compelling Kinnaman), a handsome young man from a poor country family who's smart enough to have gotten a place in Stockholm's top business school.

JW may have started out without money, but he doesn't intend to stay that way. As clever as he is handsome, JW has to scramble to make ends meet, secretly working for an Arab-run cab company and selling term papers to wealthier, lazier students. JW is careful not to let his classmates know his economic status, even, in a small but deft scene, replacing the buttons on his shirts to make them appear more expensive.

While masquerading as a moneyed type at a weekend house party, JW meets and falls for the beautiful and wealthy Sophie (Lisa Henni), which only increases his need for ready cash.

Just at this moment, fate throws an opportunity his way in the form of Jorge, who is not only on the run but the key to a way to get cocaine into the country in such huge amounts that it will threaten the livelihood of Mrado's superiors.

Before he quite realizes what he's doing, JW is involved in the business, advising his bosses about the specifics of international money laundering and feeling the headiness of being on the inside, a feeling the audience gets to share.

Meanwhile, the rival Serbs are not exactly taking all this lying down, which means considerable activity for the beleaguered Mrado. His personal life is complicated as well: The enforcer has an 8-year-old daughter named Lovisa (Lea Stojanov) who goes with him everywhere.

To the surprise of no one but himself, JW's drug trade involvement is a classic devil's bargain, and this unprepared young man soon feels the strains of living dishonestly in completely different worlds. Things are especially difficult in the drug cosmos, where double dealing is a way of life and it's essential to know not only whom to trust but how much to trust them.

As the worlds of Jorge, Mrado and JW collide, recombine and collide again, JW's — and our — understanding of who can be counted on shifts. Only one lesson holds true from start to finish: There is no such thing as easy money.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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