Second in his trio of films focusing on the drug trade from the pushers’ p.o.v., “With Blood on My Hands: Pusher II” reprises the stylish intensity of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 debut, “Pusher,” and sticks close to its successful formula of gritty, realistic violence and fast-paced rhythm. After his excursion into surreal psychology with the more personal project, “Fear X,” Winding Refn’s return to genre fare should score big at home and traffic its way to markets that went for the original.
Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), the airhead skinhead from “Pusher” who has “RESPECT” tattooed on the back of his skull, is released from prison and sheepishly begs for a job from his cold-hearted father, Smeden (Lief Sylvester), a gangster boss who specializes in hot cars. Smeden makes it abundantly clear that Tonny is worthless and unwelcome, especially after latter impulsively steals a smart Ferrari Testarossa with a tracking device and brings it home to Daddy like an eager-to-please puppy.
Helmer’s flair for pacing and surprise keeps attention riveted in action sequences like Tonny and company’s robbery of showroom cars and the subsequent race to a shipyard, where the automobiles vanish into containers. Notable by their absence are the police, who never appear in the film.
However, pic’s main thrust is psychological, first creating sympathy for Tonny’s fragility and then fueling the viewer’s nervous anxiety over of what stupid misstep he’ll make next. Smeden’s exclusive love for his younger son, Tonny’s half-brother, and stubborn refusal to cut Tonny any slack — much less, respect — rub salt into Tonny’s emotional wounds. Over the course of the film, however, this much-emphasized Oedipal conflict begins to feel seriously overbaked, particularly in the final scenes.
More original is the idea of showing Tonny himself as an offbeat but model father, when — much to his surprise (and pleasure) — he learns that he’s accidentally fathered a son. There’s much tenderness built into Mikkelsen’s astute portrayal of the fierce-looking, tattooed delinquent.
Tonny’s friend, “Kurt the Kunt” (Kurt Nielsen), a junkie and dealer who gets Tonny involved in big trouble, is another loser but played in a more comic key.
Along with the continual build-up of tension and threatened (more than shown) violence, pic is notable for its brutal depiction of the sex industry. Tonny’s humiliating visit to two mocking prostitutes is contrasted with his pathetic search for love and a family. Later, in the long concluding sequence of a gangland wedding in a tacky restaurant, a stripper graphically performs in front of the women and children present while Tonny cradles his baby and the child’s mother snorts coke in the kitchen. To its credit, pic uses quasi-hardcore vulgarity not as a titillating end in itself but to illustrate its devastating effect on the characters’ relationships with each other.
A hard-nosed cast tackles these negative characters with conviction. Handheld camerawork boosts the film’s aggressive tone, but keeps a clean look that is easily digestible. Final part of the trilogy, “I Am the Angel of Death: Pusher III,” shot back-to-back with current pic, is skedded for Danish release later this year.