Before we even get into a review of the twisty Swedish thriller, "Snabba Cash," retitled "Easy Money" for North American audiences by The Weinstein Company who has picked it up for U.S. release, one has to to first note its trajectory.
Already a hit in Sweden where it was released at the beginning of 2010, the picture's taut, intense and propulsive momentum caught the attention of Tinseltown. Soon, director Daniel Espinosa became a hot commodity, taking meeting after meeting for lucrative properties like "X-Men: First Class," "The Wolverine," the Black List script "Prisoners," and several other big name gigs (Espinosa eventually settled on "Safe House" with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds which earned over $200 million worldwide; not bad for your first Hollywood gig).
So in summation, the film landed extremely well in L.A. and put Espinosa firmly on the map within the industry. And with good reason. The crime drama about an ambitious finance student who inadvertently crosses paths with an escaped convict who is wanted dead by rival drug running gangs swims forward with tenacious shark-like energy and therefore is sleek, efficient and utterly engaging.
While "Easy Money" is well shot (stylish yet not overtly so), well-scored (moody minimalism) and acted, the star element of the picture is the narrative engine and how well the story is told. The editing is tops, the pace doesn't leave a dull moment lying around and there's some choice elliptical sound-and-scene transitions from sequence to sequence that creates a haunting sense of foreboding throughout (similar shades of the incredible editing on display in the 2008 Norwegian drama "Reprise" which we adored).
The story is essentially a three-tiered one that eventually confluences with a massive cocaine deal where three disparate lives intersect; a poor economics student dreaming of money and power outside of his class, an escaped convict on the run, and an underworld thug caught in the middle of a gangland power struggle. Based off the 2006 Swedish novel by Jens Lapidus, "Easy Money" is a white-knuckling cautionary tale about get-quick greed and status that is wholly absorbing, even if its organized crime milieu feels very familiar.
The picture opens up ruthlessly. A South-American prison inmate (Matias Padin) seems to be mucking about in the yard, and before you know it, his quickly devised prison-break plan is on and he is off and running towards freedom. "Easy Money" darts off with a jolt and hardly slows down, and yet could hardly be described as frantic or rushed. Joel Kinnaman plays JW, the financially strapped but savvy student who masquerades as part of the young, rich upper elite on the weekends only to live in a box-like dorm, drive a cab at night and sell exams and papers for cash. The aforementioned Padlin plays Jorge, the Spanish jailbird who escapes prison, only to have a hit put on his head immediately. Serbian enforcer Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) just wants to do his dirty job, but the arrival of his eight-year-old daughter at his doorstep, thanks to the incarceration of his junkie ex-wife, precipitates a change of heart in the menacing thug.
The ambitious JW desperately pangs to leave his station in life so he can hobnob with his rich peers full-time. Fate throws him a bone when his cab driver boss calls him up with his own desperate assignment: pick up a certain escaped convict immediately and earn $30,000 on the spot. But when JW finally tracks down Jorge, he is being beaten within an inch of his life by Mrado. Pulling a clever decoy maneuver, the thugs takes JW's bait and the canny student rescues the jailbird and removes him from the do-or-die situation. However, a moral line here is crossed when he joins up with these underground thugs and there's no going back.
Impressing everyone with his quick-thinking diversion plan, JW then becomes privy to the new plot. A plan is then hatched to bring in a gigantic cocaine shipment and JW's business acumen and money laundering loophole-smarts once again impress and convince his pals that he's a viable asset on and off the field. Thus the central focus of the picture comes into play (of course Mrado's Serbian overlord boss controls the local drug trade making matters more complicated).
Their lives are totally different, but chance, fate, double crosses and growing paranoia essentially all push them to be in league with one another. Tension mounts as JW realizes he's in over his head, the drama simmers to a head when Mrado is betrayed by his own boss, and soon bullets are whizzing by in a kinetic and explosive finale.
Wisely, the screenplay by Maria Karlsson, treats the characters like human beings who do have personal lives and therefore the emotional stakes are high throughout. Like Michael Mann's "Heat," each main character has his own personal drama that adds conflict to the overall milieu, but unlike that sprawling unwieldy picture that treated those storylines as tacked-on filler (which made the picture almost three hours), these outside relationships feel organic and integral to the story.
Those expecting the second coming of Christ, keep those expectations in check. "Easy Money" does not reinvent the crime drama wheel, but that is not its aim. This is simply an absorbing story told like it has electricity pumping through its veins. The narrative pulses forward and the picture often smolders with intensity.
"Easy Money" ultimately is a reality check. Get rich or die trying? The message might be: you best be prepared to die and/or the thug life isn't as glamorous when your suits are riddled with bullet holes. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from TIFF 2010.