The lure of one last job proves too great a temptation for a struggling parolee and family man in “Reyjavik-Rotterdam,” a straightforward product from much of the team behind Baltasar Kormakur’s considerably more eccentric “Jar City.” Kormakur, as star, producer and co-writer, has handed the helming reins to TV vet Oskar Jonasson; the result is an uncommonly commercial item with brawny action, strokes of humor and a besieged rooting interest (played effectively by Kormakur). International sales look to be solid for Iceland’s foreign-language film Oscar entry, and a Yank remake starring Mark Wahlberg is in the works.
From the start, the film is concerned with the seldom-seen gritty sections of Reykjavik, and the lives of those barely making ends meet. Chief among these is Kristofer (Kormakur), trying to stick to the straight-and-narrow after a criminal career that included booze smuggling. His wife, Iris (Lilja Nott Thorarinsdottir), and two kids give him a reason to dutifully punch the clock as a harbor night guard. Meanwhile, Iris’ bumbling brother Arnor (Jorundur Ragnarsson) has so botched a smuggling run that his life is being threatened by local thug Eirikur (Johannes Haukur Johannesson).
Since Kristofer got Arnor the job, he feels somewhat responsible, and with overdue back rent, the pressure to join a planned smuggling run to Rotterdam and back becomes overwhelming. He’s somewhat suspiciously supported in this by friend Steingrimur (vet Icelandic star and “Jar City” lead Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson), whose assistance not too surprisingly disguises nefarious intentions.
Midsection largely concerns Kristofer aboard a cargo ship with a motley crew, most of whom are in on the operation and barely eluding the eye of the ship’s buttoned-up management. The sharp class lines tilt toward the cartoonish rather than smart social critique and comedy, but the action elements amount to a terrific variation on classic heist formulas, complete with cleverly executed ellipses that keep parts of the plot hidden.
A surprising turn occurs on the typically peaceful streets of Rotterdam, and the ensuing shootout and some comic business involving a smuggled Jackson Pollock canvas is the stuff of pure movie-movie enjoyment (although the abuses the canvas endures throughout could be read as a slam on the cultural ignorance of the European working class).
Considerably less successful is Steingrimur’s scheming back in Reykjavik, which quickly grows routine once the film reveals his true colors; Sigurdsson’s conflicted sleuth in “Jar City” proved a better fit for this distinctive actor than this more mechanically drawn character.
Scenes between Johannesson’s Eirikur and Thorarinsdottir’s Iris yield a few ridiculous twists; indeed, the script (by “Jar City” author Arnaldur Indridason and Kormakur) often allows incident after incident to overwhelm story logic.
Kormakur takes charge as a bona fide movie star, even occasionally resembling Viggo Mortensen. Crucial to what works in the film is his authentic expression of Kristofer’s moral reluctance to get back in the smuggling game and, once he’s in, his confidence in pulling it off.
Strong lensing by Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson in the title’s paired cities and on the ship looks inspired by the grainy look Owen Roizman established in “The French Connection,” and editor Elisabet Ronaldsdottir cracks the whip on pacing. Composer Bardi Johannsson’s score is too indicative of story turns to come.