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By KJ Doughton | June 1, 2006

“Whenever you make a little cash, someone else shows up and wants a cut.”

Welcome to the seedy, cynical world of “Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands,” the second installment in Nicolas Winding Refn’s scorching vision of the Danish drug scene. Abandoning Frank, the doomed debtor and main character from “Pusher,” Refn now focuses his lens on Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), screw-up son of a prominent gangster known as the Duke (Leif Sylvester). In the first “Pusher” film, Tonny endured the worst baseball bat pummeling in screen history. Here, he’s seen emerging from prison after a stint behind bars. Tonny’s bald bean still sports the menacing tattoo “RESPECT,” giving him the appearance of a wannabe skinhead. But the inked letters also suggest a hunger to be appreciated.

It’s evident that the Duke perceives this eldest son as a failure; a reprobate write-off who takes second fiddle to a favored younger child. When Tonny stumbles into the Duke’s auto garage asking for work, he is asked, “How much do you owe?” Dad is no fool, and Leif Sylvester adds tremendous credibility to the role of the Duke. Appearing as Herman Munster with crow’s feet eyes and a stare that could freeze hot lava, Sylvester is convincing as a weathered, seen-it-all crime lord also dealing with serious domestic dysfunction.

Despite misgivings, the reluctant father grants Tonny a place in his thriving car theft ring. Soon, however, the Duke’s bastard misfit has a new concern. Charlotte, a skanky, pre-prison girlfriend, claims that Tonny is the father of her infant child. The misfortune piles up higher when a dope-selling associate involves Tonny in a debt incurring deal-gone-bad. Things go downhill from there.

While “Pusher” followed a physically commanding, assured presence, the sequel observes an insecure, unappreciated geek. Tonny’s thin skin can’t repel the critical barbs hurled his way. Inevitably, something’s gotta give. Unlike its predecessor, “Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands” shows the violent aftermath of a weak man’s continuous rejection. But Refn also offers a tiny smidgeon of hope.

“Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands” isn’t an action film. And its sickening imagery isn’t fueled by gore and grue. Refn is less obvious than that. His films’ potent shock value springs from the directors’ keen ability to convey a complete surrender to addiction, where nothing is sacred and everything ends in a drink, a line, or an injection. Mothers inhale crack, the smoke wafting around in their infants’ faces. During a decadent wedding party, strippers undress amidst a crowd that includes both jaded grownups and gawking children. There’s not even the outward display of shame, or any effort to shelter the innocent from adult misbehavior. Disgusting? Yes. Exploitative? No way.

“Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands” was allegedly produced to bail Refn out of the considerable debt incurred from “Fear X,” a box-office bomb that left him $900,000 dollars in the hole. (“Gambler,” a 2006 documentary concerning Refn’s financial woes, is currently being screened across the international film festival circuit.) But it’s obvious that the filmmaker couldn’t sell out. There’s more onscreen than just a second-rate, cash-in quickie.

Even so, why see a film so awash in sin and despair? Perhaps because it gives us a tour of where we don’t want to be. Like “Requiem for a Dream,” Rejn’s films don’t whitewash drug culture. For this reason, some might be consider them depressing. For others, they offer up universal, human emotions painted with a palette of the most extreme colors.

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