We, like a large portion of the rest of the world, really enjoyed the first “Snabba Cash” -- retitled in English to the less-memorable “Easy Money” -- director Daniel Espinosa’s pulsating Swedish crime film that launched both him and soon-to-be “Robocop” Joel Kinnaman onto our radars. We complimented that film on its “tenacious, shark-like energy” and were cautiously optimistic when its international success warranted a sequel. “Easy Money II,” which screened yesterday at the Göteborg International Film Festival, sees Kinnaman and many members of the original cast return, but this time with Babak Najafi in the director’s chair instead of Espinosa. The result is a film that does honor to its predecessor by expanding the narrative universe a small degree, while never quite managing to pull a “Godfather II” on it. Still, it’s a sequel that, over a tighter running time, kicks against the law of diminishing returns, and only succumbs to it after a fight.
The movie opens three years after we last saw JW (Kinnaman, is it just me or does he look like Emma Watson sometimes?). He’s now in prison with the wheelchair-bound Mrado (crippled by JW’s gunshot at the end of "Easy Money") but they have mended fences during their time inside and built a strong comradeship. In fact, over the course of a downbeat, luckless few weeks for the whole gang, their bond of loyalty proves stronger than many others. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. While inside, JW has written a piece of trading software in which a venture capitalist has expressed interest in investing, but meanwhile the other surviving characters from the first film have been going anything but straight on the outside. Mahmoud (Fares Fares) has gotten in deep with Serbian master criminal Radovan (Dejan Cukic), while Jorge (Matias Varela), also dealing with Radovan through an intermediary, is involved in a new score: a dope deal worth ten million in, of course, easy money. New blood is injected into the story when, in a rare moment of kindness, the despicable Jorge strikes up an acquaintance with one of Radovan's prostitutes, which proves fateful for both. Ultimately, all it takes is for JW, on unsupervised leave from jail, to be conned out of the fruits of his work and shunned in final fashion by his ex-girlfriend, to realize that there is no going back to a "good man’s" life, and to plot the next big score with Mrado. All these strands come together in the form of a single bag of money, which is temporarily in the possession of seemingly every one of our large cast of characters here.
The plotting does kind of get in the way at times, but if it’s less believable than the first film, it’s also, after a fashion, more operatic. Chance and dumb luck play a huge part -- a car crashes in such a way that the drug-filled trunk won’t open; one character’s separate transgression sees her incarcerated, unwittingly, adjacent to where a major deal is going down; events conspire to have several of the principals arrive separately, with different agendas and many guns, at the same house simultaneously. And yet what could feel contrived actually serves to give us a sense of the claustrophobia of these desperate lives -- of course the same faces show up time and again in the unstable fraternity of Stockholm’s underworld -- so there’s a sense of Greek tragedy-like inevitability to how it all plays out.
And like the first film, “Easy Money II” knows its milieu. The culture clashes and mutual racism expressed between the Swedes, Arabs, Serbs and Spaniards featured (often rendered through characters speaking languages others don’t understand -- a tiny bit confusing when you’re reading English subs) feels authentic to the experience of marginalized first- and second-generation immigrants, especially those who turn to crime to help themselves to the high life they believe they are unfairly denied. But more evocatively, this is a story about crossing lines, and not simply the trek across the no man’s land between good and evil. This is a film about the very specific moment of losing your soul altogether, the moment you go, in your own mind perhaps, from being a good man who does bad things to simply being a bad man. Is it possible to come back from that point? Can you find redemption in someone else? If you are to be good, who are you being good for, and what if they are gone?
In aesthetic terms the film is not as stylishly shot as the first, but its jittery camera work and grey-skied anti-glamor suit the story well, and the actors are all completely at home in their parts. And the editing, a notable feature of the original film, is also quite inspired here, with fractional flashforwards serving to keep things a little off-kilter, while also conserving a breakneck momentum across the leaner running time. A few tricks maybe don’t quite land -- Mrado’s immediate about-face from supportive, seemingly reformed friend to cold-blooded killer with a plan feels a bit sudden, and the parent-child relationships suffer from being rather crudely drawn. But mostly “Easy Money 2” does what sequels should - it widens the thematic playing area of the tale told so far, even while thinning out the cast further, and it makes us look forward, with only slightly tempered expectations, to installment 3. [B]