Say you've been hailed as Denmark's next great hope. You burst on to the scene with a dazzling debut. You followed that up with an equally acclaimed sophomore film (Bleeder) then went overseas to try your luck in North America (Fear X). What do you do next? If you're Nicolas Winding Refn you go back to what made you famous in the first place and you do it even better. In late 2004 Refn released Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands, a sequel to his acclaimed '96 debut, and as dazzling as the original Pusher was this is unquestionably better.
Pusher II tells the story of Tonny, the heavily tattooed small time hood who was Frank's sidekick and betrayer in the original film. His selection as the subject of the sequel is a fascinating choice and one that exposes a lot of Refn's purpose behind the films. Tonny is not one of the glamor crooks, not by a long shot. He's one of those bumbling, small time sycophants who you always find bouncing around the lower ranks, the kind who will never advance because they are simply incompetent or, in Tonny's case, simply far too soft to stomach what is necessary to advance. But Tonny's low status doesn't deter him. He loves this lifestyle and wants to stay. But why? Is he caught up in the glamor of the higher ups or is their something else going on?
The film opens with Tonny finishing up a stint in jail, being lectured by a major hood he owes money to, one who challenges him to conquer his own fear and reminds him that his jail debts have been let slide only because of Tonny's father, a man known only as the Duke. On his eventual release Tonny, needing to pay off his debts, immediately visits the Duke looking for work but is met only by scorn and derision. Tonny is clearly not a favored son, not because he is a criminal but because he is not good enough at it. The Duke, on the other hand, is the feared and respected head of a complicated car theft ring and Tonny manages to beg his way into a low level spot in the gang.
Now, as much as this is a crime film - and it is a graphic and violent one replete with stacks of sex and violence and a simply obscene aount of cocaine snorted - the crime is really a disguise for Refn's true intentions. This is a film about families, broken ones, and the impact family has across generations. Tonny's entire life has obviously been spent on only one thing: trying to gain the approval of his father. And not only that he learns on his release that he is very likely the father of a baby boy, one so scorned by its mother that it hasn't even been given a name yet. Throw into the mix a best friend who is engaged to be married and a fiance drinking and coking away constantly despite being pregnant and Refn is painting a vivid picture of a toxic childhood.
The Refn style is again in full effect but this film belongs purely and simply to Mikkelsen. He is absolutely stunning, flawlessly embodying the insecurities and desire that drives this man. He makes Tonny into an everyman, a stark reminder of the lasting effect our actions can have on future generations. The film's ending is positively devastating - though for an entirely different reason that the first Pusher's also compelling conclusion - and I don't mind saying that this is one that brought me to tears. Not only the best film of the trilogy but easily one of the very best films of the year and one of the best crime films ever made, period. It is not for the squeamish but Pusher II gets my absolute highest possible recommendation.