With the global success of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" trilogy, Sweden has quickly become a resource for brooding, morally subversive crime thrillers. The trilogy, as well as last year's energizing heist movie "Headhunters" (another adaptation of a Swedish best-seller), benefit from a flattering contrast to Hollywood's superhero-heavy pandering to the youth market. "Easy Money," which arrives this week in U.S. theaters two years after its festival debut and with a sequel already complete, continues Sweden's dominance over slick, intelligent escapism aimed at the same kind of mature sensibilities Christopher Nolan smuggled into the "Batman" trilogy for the sake of its commercial appeal.
It's not an exact comparison. "Easy Money" (not to be confused with the Rodney Dangerfield romp) has neither the breadth nor spectacular aims of Nolan's movies, but its measured approach to conflicted men coping with the boundaries of their society makes it an ideal entry point for anyone looking to gear up for the highly anticipated "The Dark Knight Rises." While that tentpole concludes a grim trilogy of good-versus-evil several years in the making, "Easy Money" marks the beginning of new one.
A third film is in the works in Sweden, while Warner Bros. has plans for a remake with Zach Efron. That's not its only impact on the American industry: Based on the 2006 novel by Jens Lapidus, "Easy Money" is directed by Daniel Espinosa, who since gone on to direct the Denzel Washington vehicle "Safe House" and has another studio movie on the way.
Now that Nolan has completed his "Batman" trilogy, perhaps Warners could turn the franchise over to a Swede. Espinosa's burgeoning studio career makes sense in light of the thoroughly engaging saga of corruption he assembles here. Maria Karlsson's screenplay draws together a trio of intertwined conflicts involving three frustrated men driven to crimes of desperation. While overlong and occasionally too reliant on a formulaic set of motives to drive the action forward, "Easy Money" retains its suave composure right through the engrossing finale.
The story opens with the startling prison escape of Chilean drug trader Jorge (Matias Padin Varela), in a nimble feat that serves little purpose except to reinsert him into his old ways with the cops on his trail. On the lam, he tells his frustrated sister that he hopes to pull off one last deal before getting out of the business for good. Before he gets there, the focus shifts to the seemingly unrelated tale of overconfident economics student JW (Joel Kinnaman, now known for his role on the television series "The Killing"), a brainy hustler whose romancing of an upper-class woman (Lisa Henni) inadvertently leads him to advise a group of cocaine smugglers and eventually hire Jorge for his street smarts.
With those two pieces of the equation drawn together, a third central character immediately complicates the arrangement: Hitman Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) takes a gig from the Yugoslavian mafia to knock off Jorge before he goes after the Yugoslavian mob boss responsible for his initial incarceration. Mrado himself has more depth than the violence his profession calls for; he deals with constant reservations over the tension between his perilous job and the safety of his young child.
Each of these tormented individuals, terrifically embodied in a trio of intense performances, face challenges that deeply complicate their dynamic. It's impossible for everyone to get what they want, but because "Easy Money" lacks a clearly defined villain, Espinosa toys with our sympathies and sketches a world around them. JW, Jorge and Mrardo are trapped by dark motives and impossible personal goals — mainly those all-too-familiar desires to get rich and find sanctuary. Espinosa's Stockholm amounts to a grittier take on Nolan's version of Gotham City, a noir-inflected universe in which everyone appears trapped by ominous forces beyond their control.
Millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne certainly has an easy escape from his perilous dealings if he wants to take it. Instead, the Batman alter ego provides him with a means of endangering his safety in service of a higher cause. The characters in "Easy Money" similarly put themselves in harm's way for the sake of abstract causes. Nolan's relentlessly bleak approach relies on a combination of shadowy images, abrupt narrative shifts and scowling performances to foreground an overwhelming sense of dread, while Espinosa crowds the plot with snazzy techniques that draw out the gloomy scenario while simultaneously molding it into a flashy entertainment.
That palpable skill has drawn no less than Martin Scorsese to support the project by lending his name to its release as the movie's presenter. Announcing his involvement, Scorsese praised "Easy Money" for having a "harsh, elemental style," the key word being the third one. The movie is so neatly stitched together that its construction often distracts from a fairly standard series of developments as they build toward the inevitable showdown. Once there, "Easy Money" piles up the running, jumping and shooting with palpable intensity, but far less substance than the events preceding it. A curious prologue quickly sets the stage for the sequel by hinting that the series' own dark knight will soon rise, but we'll have to wait a little longer to see if he can follow through.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company releases "Easy Money" in New York on Wednesday and Los Angeles on Thursday. Although it's now a fairly old movie, its overseas box office success suggests it should have a solid wave of buzz to support its opening weekend, if not much longer beyond that; however, interest in the franchise should grow with the sequels and potential remake, which should help the movie's prospects on DVD.