“Easy Money” is the latest dose of cold weather and cold-bloodedness to arrive in the form of a Scandinavian crime drama, and while less compelling than other recent releases representing this hot mini-genre, it’s a winner.
Multidimensional characters and a captivating central performance make up for a lack of narrative crispness in this drug-trade tapestry featuring three desperate men.
The U.S. title is the only thing drab about this Swedish release, directed by Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House”) and adapted by Maria Karlsson from the best-seller “Snabba Cash” by Jens Lapidus.
Less pulpy than the “Dragon Tattoo” films and less gritty than Norway’s “Headhunters,” the tone is a mix of gangster-flick action and pithier, issue-infused drama. The setting is Stockholm’s multicultural drug-trade world.
Jorge (Matias Padin Varela) is a petty drug runner with South American roots and pivotal Euro-connections. He gets things rolling when he escapes from prison. His wary pregnant sister (Annika Whittembury) won’t give him shelter.
Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) is a Serbian mob enforcer. He has an 8-year-old daughter (Lea Stojanov) and worries about how his line of work might affect her.
JW (Joel Kinnaman), the primary protagonist, is a business student with movie-star looks and blistering gray matter, but also with working-class origins that deny him access to the sphere of the wealthy elite. Coveting that life, he puts on a suit and hobnobs with rich folk, lying about his background. He falls for moneyed Sophie (Lisa Henni).
To fund the deception, JW drives a cab for a mob-owned company. Soon, he is laundering money for gangsters, who call him “Mr. Brains.” Beneath his confident demeanor, however, he’s a terrified rookie in a brutal game.
A cocaine transaction links the characters. Each views the deal as a ticket to freedom. Naturally, snafus happen, along with violence, betrayal and angsty screams.
The film is less emotionally resonant than the similarly themed “Headhunters,” and its intricately woven plot borders on overcomplicated. The female characters play like devices designed to highlight the men’s softer aspects. The romance is hard to buy.
Yet Espinosa still delivers a solid thriller offering both escapist appeal and weightier satisfaction. Interesting minitopics range from Swedish class conflicts to ethnic divisions in the drug world to the near-impossibility of forming friendships in this universe.
The action doesn’t upstage the humanity, and there are well-developed protagonists about whom we care.
The actors convey serious desperation, with Kinnaman particularly strong. The actor, from AMC’s “The Killing,” makes JW a memorable presence as his exhilaration turns to horror and he tries to contain his inner freak-out while slowly displaying some semblance of, possibly, a soul. He’s a complicated, terrific lead character.