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By KJ Doughton | June 1, 2006

This is the film that Nicolas Winding Refn was warming up for with his previous two “Pusher” installments. After viewing the entire series in one six-hour binge, I’m haunted by the question, “Would the third film be so powerful without the history provided by its predecessors?”

As one whose brain is forever branded by the entire “Pusher” experience taken back-to-back, it’s difficult to perceive of director Refn’s trilogy being lobbed into three segments. Yet, each film does project an individualized, self-contained slice of underworld life. Each follows a different main character. I’m convinced that taken as separate servings, “Pusher 3: I’m the Angel of Death” would easily surface as the most resonant and masterful of the series. Perhaps even as a classic of the crime genre.

In a blistering, unforgettable performance, Zlatko Buric plays Milo, a Serbian drug kingpin with the most dynamic and complex persona since Don “Godfather” Corleone. One minute, our sweaty, rumpled goodfella is slaving over the cooking for a family gathering. Later, he’s impaling the skull of an Albanian competitor with a tire-iron.

Milo is introduced attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings as the film begins. Although he has taken human life, and makes a living from human addiction, Milo is sobered by the 25th birthday of Milena (Marinela Dekic), his pushy, spoiled-brat daughter. To Milo, stabs at sobriety symbolize the remaining humanity pumping through his hardened veins.

We’re often blinded to the faults and flaws that blemish our family nests. Take Milo’s relationship with Milena, whose abrasive, mercenary nature is apparent in the film’s early frames. “I want flowers and balloons everywhere,” she insists of a restaurant manager slaving over her birthday party arrangements. Milo might resort to murder when drug debts are left unpaid, but he’s a total pushover when Milena demands money or favors. Is he blind to Milena’s dark side? Not until late in the film, when she finally reveals her true colors and bloodless nature by negotiating a cold, calculated business deal. Even then, Milo gives in to her demands.

“Pusher II” observed Tonny, an underworld punk whose anger at being overlooked and under-appreciated exploded in violence. In Refn’s final installment of his ambitious trilogy, the director mines this vein on a more expansive level. Unlike Tonny, Milo has a history as one of Denmark’s most volatile and effective dealers. But Refn shows how hard this ruthless, feared man can fall over a harrowing twenty-four hour period, in which bad judgment, naivete, and addiction nearly cost him an empire. But the catalysts for his near-undoing are frustration and insecurity. He’s tired of being taken for granted. And like Tonny, he can only be pushed so far.

When Milo receives a bag of ecstasy instead of the heroin shipment originally requested of a young, hungry Albanian gang, his life is turned upside-down. Will Milo reclaim his gangland throne? I wouldn’t dare spoil the film’s denouement. But I will say that in examining the animalistic depths this conflicted man dives into, “Pusher 3: I’m the Angel of Death” pulls no punches. Viewers beware: it doesn’t get much darker than this.

The genius of the “Pusher” series is its willingness to plumb recognizable human traits in a more extreme context than most people would wish to tread in real life. Like opera or classic literature, film has the ability to take universal emotions and weld them onto severe circumstances. We’ve all felt Frank’s desperation, Tonney’s rejection and Milo’s anger. But hopefully, we’ve pulled back on the reins and controlled these emotions. In “Pusher,” they’re taken to more explosive levels that are horrible in real life, but artful in the context of the screen.

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