Swedish crime films from late countryman Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, plus domestic clones and American remakes, may yet merit their own subset niche. From practicing criminal defense attorney Jens Lapidus’ 2006 bestseller Snabba Cash -- his twin sequel books are to be filmed as well -- and presented by Martin Scorsese and with a Warners remake in the offing, Easy Money is the latest such take on drug- and double-dealing, big bucks, corrupt financiers and Eastern European mafiosos in twenty-first-century Stockholm.
Such wide coverage calls for adept foreshortening and juggling in this minute-less-than-two-hour offering, but Daniél Espinosa’s direction from a Maria Karlsson script does not pull off the necessary clarity. “Gangster films,” feels the director, “should always be moral stories” even if their characters are ambiguous by accepted standards. Thus, each of the three connected principal figures is given a redeeming side, a familial relationship that humanizes him apart from the world of cocaine, death and greed in which he operates.
The tale does build tension leading to a climactic confrontation followed by short indications of the different fates of the three, but in moving back-and-forth among them throughout, the central thread is attenuated. And because of the constant shifts, the scruffily bearded Serbian, Arab and Latino traffickers and foot soldiers are difficult to distinguish one from another. Combined with close-up camera work against unfocused backgrounds, this confuses the whole, though perhaps this is intentional -- as in Mexican Miss Bala -- to indicate the interpenetration of the various gangs, businesses and interests.
Indicative of his fecklessness, J.W. (Joel Kinnaman) is hardly ever called Johan Westlund, a handsome economics student from the small-town north who writes others’ term papers and drives a gypsy cab to finance his hobnobbing with the upper crust at clubs and country estates. His constant lies about his background mask insincerity, insecurity and the haunting disappearance four years ago of his sister Camilla.
He turns to more blatant criminality when a romance develops with wealthy Sophie (a feature début for Lisa Henni), who is on the rebound and falls for him in a big way. Thus drawn into the world of smuggling cocaine by Abdulkarim, who runs the taxi company, he is instructed to open a channel to Jorge Salinas (Matias Padin Varela), a small-time Chilean (Espinosa is of Chilean descent) dealer and prison escapee who seeks revenge on kingpin Radovan Kranjic (Dejan Cukic).
Jorge is also moved to protect his mother and his sister Paola (Annika Whittembury, also a feature first-timer), pregnant and abandoned by her fearful man Andreas. Fitness-freak hit man Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) has been assigned to thwart Jorge but finds his mission and his life complicated by caring for eight-year-old daughter Lovisa (a débuting Lea Stojanov), traumatized by her mother’s substance abuse.
With Abdulkarim’s financing, J.W. rescues Jorge to restore him to health in his own student-housing apartment and then goes to Germany to broker a purchase with Jorge’s contacts who smuggle drugs in cabbage heads and implanted under dogs’ skin.
Nicknamed Mr. Brain -- turned to self-mockery in the final line -- -economics student J.W. suggests, and arranges for, laundering the profits through a bank bought from the unscrupulous cash-strapped father of Sophie’s former beau Carl.
Jorge warns J.W. that he will never see a cut of the money but himself dreams of one last Superfly score to flee back to the Americas with his sister and her baby girl. Similarly, Mrado and Lovisa’s godfather plan to intercept the eighteen-wheeler coke shipment and retire back to Belgrade, wooing J.W. with cash and a promise that no one will get hurt.
The double- and triple-crosses multiply, an unexpected phone call tips off the police, moral judgments are withheld, and the jumble makes Chandler’s The Big Sleep look straightforward by comparison. Those who can rise above the convoluted confusion will enjoy this “gritty thriller of intrigue and self-delusion” constructed around two men moved into, and hoping to move out of, crime by family love and a third who is too shallow even to lie to help out an emotionally shattered girlfriend.
(Released by The Weinstein Company; rated “R” by MPAA)