The seamy side of the Finnish capital takes centerstage in the strongly crafted gangster tale "Hellsinki."

The seamy side of the Finnish capital takes centerstage in the strongly crafted and performed gangster tale “Hellsinki,” the second collaboration of helmer Aleksi Makela and scribe Marko Leino (“Matti: Hell Is For Heroes”). Based on a volume of oral histories drawn from old-time criminals in the city’s notorious Rooperi neighborhood, the pic plays like a Finnish “Goodfellas.” Still in local cinemas, the January release has already sold more than 250,000 ducats. Best options for export are via national film weeks and ancillary.

During the mid-20th century, impoverished Rooperi (aka Punavuori) was a latter-day Wild West with criminal gangs dominating the streets. Illegal booze was the quarter’s most lucrative business until drugs arrived, changing all the rules.

Unfolding from 1966-79, the story tracks the rise and fall of three small-time bootleggers with more brawn than brains. After 10 years working the streets, hefty Tom (Samuli Edelmann), cocky Krisu (Peter Franzen) and dimwit Kari (Kari Hietalahti) decide the time is ripe to control Rooperi’s black-market liquor sales.

When brute force sends their competition packing, the pals transition into the “catering business,” but even as they make more money, they yearn for bigger things. Eventually, circumstances lead to a parting of ways: Tom marries curvy blonde Monika (Pihla Viitala), who demands that he go straight; Krisu decides to try his luck in Sweden; and Kari is arrested for a botched bank robbery.

Amusingly, Tom’s idea of a decent job is to open a sex shop, but between cop raids and the locals’ shyness, he barely gets by. However, as soon as he launches a mail-order side, business booms.

As time passes, Tom and Monika’s marriage falls apart, Krisu returns to Finland a junkie, Kari prefers jail, and a new breed of criminal, epitomized by the ruthless Cracker (Jasper Paakkonen), rules the streets. Even Koistinen (Juha Veijonen), the friendly neighborhood cop, decides it’s time to retire.

Infused with a wistful nostalgia for a time when crooks lived by a predictable code, the smartly nuanced screenplay by Leino (author of Renny Harlin’s new Finnish project, “Mannerheim”) follows genre rules while making the main characters more than mere types. However, the pic would play even more powerfully without its unconvincing coda.

No stranger to blockbusters, vet director Makela found his biggest successes in fact-based tales such as “Matti” and “Bad Boys.” Like those earlier titles, “Hellsinki” boasts a masculine point of view, fast-paced action, a boyish sense of humor and thesps Frantzen and Paakonen.

Shadowy widescreen lensing by Pini Hellstedt and spot-on period settings and costumes lead the classy tech package.

Hellsinki

Finland

Production

A Nordisk Film release of a Solar Films production, with the support of the Finnish Film Foundation, MTV3. (International sales: TrustNordisk, Hvidovre, Denmark.) Produced by Markus Selin, Jukka Helle. Directed by Aleksi Makela. Screenplay, Marko Leino, based on the book "Rooperi: The Years of Crime 1955-2005" by Harri Nykanen, Tom Sjoberg.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Pini Hellstedt; editor, Kimmo Taavila; music, Kalle Chydenius; art director, Pirjo Rossi; costume designer, Tiina Kaukanen; sound (Dolby Digital), Jyrki Rahkonen. Reviewed on DVD, Chicago, April 19, 2009. Running time: 133 MIN.

With

Samuli Edelmann, Peter Franzen, Pihla Viitala, Kari Hietalahti, Juha Veijonen, Jasper Paakkonen, Pekka Valkeejarvi, Hiski Gronstrand.
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