Easy Money: From Stockholm With Drugs

Joel Kinnaman of 'The Killing' plays a young man on the perilous rise through the Swedish upper class and the Serbian drug underworld

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“In Chinese,” the economics professor at a Stockholm university says, “the word for ‘crisis’ also means ‘opportunity’.” One of his students, Johan “JW” Westlund (Joel Kinnaman), takes careful note. A kid from the sticks determined not to crash high society but to cruise into it, JW pays for his upwardly mobile couture and nights in Stureplan bars by driving a cab for a Serbian who also runs a cocaine business. The Serbians need to launder their dirty cash, and JW knows just the failing bank for them to buy as a front. Opportunity. But this smart boy is mixing with folks who don’t play nice; some may want JW to play dead. Crisis.

The Swedish crime drama Easy Money comes to the U.S. with more fanfare than the Pope got on his last visit to Yankee Stadium. The movie, very freely based on Jens Lapidus’s 2006 best-seller Snabba Cash, was the country’s biggest home-grown hit since the Stieg Larsson “Millennium” movies; like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it is to be followed by two Swedish sequels and remade as a Hollywood picture (starring Zac Efron). Easy Money’s director, Daniél Espinosa, has already moved into the big time, much like JW, by directing the Denzel Washington hit Safe House. And Kinnaman, the son of Swedish and American parents, has blossomed Stateside as Detective Stephen Holder on the AMC series The Killing. Next year he’ll play RoboCop in a relaunching of the 1987 action franchise. A hot property, a rising director, a new star — plus the imprimatur of “Martin Scorsese Presents” on its posters. For a foreign-language picture, all that is a rare opportunity.

(READ: Corliss on the Dragon Tattoo trilogy)

And, if not a crisis, a massive burden to justify the hype. Easy Money carries about half the load. Well acted and acutely observed, the film doesn’t try to be a conventionally satisfying coke-land action film. This is no Swedish Savages, though it shares with the Oliver Stone movie the fatal rivalry between two drug syndicates, adding the new-boy JW as a possible rooting interest for viewers. They may be confused by the gnarly plot about the conflict of three cultures (Swedish, Serbian and Chilean) in one city, and the dozens of characters, of various shades from gray to pitch black, played by actors with unfamiliar faces. Though it features such standard action elements as a prison break, a few shootouts and some French Connection-style subway choreography, the picture works better as the study of the risks young JW will take to achieve the power that comes with the old-money class he aspires to join.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Savages)

An almost comically solemn portrait of blond ambition, JW has plastered his dorm-room wall with photos of male models whose sleek ease he means to emulate. He suavely slicks back his light hair, sews expensive buttons on his inexpensive shirts and takes care in choosing his cufflinks. Who wears cufflinks any more? JW does, for he wants to seem a gent to the manor born. And pretty, posh Sophie (Lisa Henni) has just the country manor, to which, by writing a term paper for a rich classmate, JW has been invited. She’s interested in him, thinks he’s a fellow one-percenter. But then, Jay Gatsby passed for old money too.

(READ: James Poniewozik on Joel Kinnaman and The Killing)

Jay’s millions came from bootlegging to a house of recovery in the area, drugs and alcohol; JW’s stash, he hopes, will come from a transaction that gets his hands dirty but leaves his face clean. The drug lord Radovan (Dejan Kukic) doesn’t want to do business with those “lying dogs” the Arabs; “They don’t share the same God.” Needing a nice Swedish boy, he calls in JW, who realizes he’s in deeper than he thought. This is his moment of truth — and the movie’s sharpest scene. In Kinnaman’s stricken wariness, you can see JW’s life flash before his eyes. The rest of his life, that is: a golden future the drug deal might bring him, or an early, violent death. Trusting his intellect and instincts, he proposes that Radovan “buy a bank”; JW will act as the middle man, taking a 20% fee of all profits just like any hedge-fund manager. The gangsters are impressed; they call JW “Mr. Brains.” The crisis has become an opportunity.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Lola Versus with Joel Kinnaman)

It takes a while to figure out whether JW’s dark adventure will follow the Hollywood pattern, in which a hero/antihero rises to the challenge, or the European, in which he gets crushed by the system. The odds favor the latter, since JW has also agreed to harbor Jorge (Matias Padin Varela), a Chilean who has just escaped from prison with inside knowledge of the coke business, and who is being pursued by Radovan’s hit man Mrado (Dragmir Mrsic). If he’s not careful and lucky, Mr. Brains will get his splattered all over Stockholm.

(SEE: How many crime films are on the all-TIME 100 Movies list)

Espinosa keeps the movie moving like a novice driver at the wheel of a stick-shift: sometimes speeding through the plot, often idling in first. And in the mistaken belief that moviegoers will be as fascinated by the private lives of underworld underlings as they are by a wannabe-millionaire Swede, the director spends almost as much time with Jorge and Mrado as with JW. To humanize the thugs, the movie gives each one a loved one: Jorge’s pregnant sister Paola (Annika Ryberg Whittembury) and Mrada’s eight-year-old daughter Lovisa (Lea Stojanov). Someone to love is also someone to lose; it’s a minor wonder of the plot that Paola and Lovisa, and Sophie too, are not all kidnapped and thrown in Radovan’s dungeon.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Daniél Espinosa’s Safe House)

Yes, the Serbs are killers, all right. But, Espinosa wants you to realize, the deadliest class in Sweden is the uppermost, though their cruelty is expressed in whispers and jokes. Early in the film, a rich young man tells a “true story” about going into a man’s room in a restaurant and finding Bill Gates there. Impulsively, he introduces himself to the Microsoft zillionaire and offers an invitation to join his friends at lunch. The young man is surprised when Gates later comes to the table, but not impressed. “F— you, Bill,” he says.

If the Swedish plutocracy would reject Bill Gates as new-money, how could they ever accept their own Jay Gatsby?