Johan "JW" Westlund, ace student at the Stockholm School of Economics, likes to take risks. A poor kid from the Swedish equivalent of Iowa, JW hobnobs with the capital city rich kids, pretending to a wealth he doesn't have and lying to everyone he knows. He's the Talented Mr. Ripley of the Stockholm jet set, and he's looking for a fast track to the big money.
Jorge is young Chilean drug-runner on the run from the cops and the Serbian mob. Recently escaped from prison, Jorge has aligned himself with an Arab crime syndicate and hopes to make that One Big Score by facilitating a huge cocaine delivery.
Mrado is an aging enforcer for the Serbian gang, tasked with bringing Jorge back to his ruthless employer. A weary but entirely competent veteran of Stockholm's criminal underworld, Mrado senses it's probably time to retire and is looking for a payout himself.
The fabulous Swedish import Easy Money (Snabba Cash) tells the story of these three men as their fates twist and collide in the brutal underbelly of Stockholm. It's a great movie — one of the best pure crime thrillers in recent years — and features a tense lead performance from Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, from the AMC crime drama The Killing. That show, in turn, is based on the Danish TV series Forbrydelsen ("The Crime"). Toss in all the Stieg Larrson madness and this Scandanavian-American crime drama exchange is really paying dividends.
Easy Money hums along just fine as a gritty gangster picture with angst-ridden anti-heroes and snarling Eurotrash villains. Director Daniel Espinosa knows how to crank up the tension, both in individual scenes and through the full arc of the story. As the three men dig themselves deeper and deeper into the violent mire, alliances are made, broken and patched up again. The only sure things in this thug life are death and double-crosses.
But there's a surprising foundational level underneath the genre exercises. Each of the men has specific family issues that complicate his professional life. JW is still mourning the mysterious disappearance of his teenage sister. Jorge is about to become an uncle and is desperate to come through for his tight-knit family. The hitman Mrado must carry out his lethal assignment while keeping one eye on his little girl. Take Your Daughter to Work Day never seemed so perilous.
The film's real hero, though, is director Espinosa, who went on to make last year's Denzel Washington thriller Safe House. The film's locomotive momentum is sustained through several improbable detours. Watch for a tense and funny "meet the parents" scene. Espinosa pulls off some stylish tricks in the editing room with glitchy transitions and stuttering flash-forwards.
The movie has a few soft spots. Even aside from tracking the rapid subtitled dialogue, the first 30 minutes of the film are so frantic that it's hard to keep track of who's who. Some questions about JW's family are posed and then forgotten. And there's a yawning plot hole in the final heist scene that looks awfully shabby.
Snabba Cash — such a better title — was a huge hit in Europe three years ago, and it launched the Hollywood careers of its director and star. The inevitable coda: An American remake is already in the works. With Zac Efron. I wish I were kidding.
Also New This Week:
Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis conjure our esteemed 16th President in Lincoln. The DVD/Blu-ray combo pack includes some nice bonus materials on the production and the historical context.
It's Mads Mikkelsen and high drama in 18th-century Denmark with the period drama A Royal Affair.
Brad Pitt is an efficient American gangster in the allegorical neo-noir Killing Them Softly.
Plus: Parental Guidance, The Comedy, The Frankenstein Theory and TV-on-DVD collections from Veep, The Borgias, Star Trek Enterprise and Mad TV.