BERLIN – While Icelandic writer-director Oskar Thor Axelsson’s debut feature, Black’s Game, is a badass gangster thriller that owes something to the Pusher trilogy of executive producer Nicolas Winding Refn, what it really wants to be is Goodfellas. But that would require a whole lot more character development than this routine script or these actors provide. Gripping enough but stylistically derivative and prone to mistaking bludgeoning excess for coolness, this genre entry’s chief distinction is its setting.
The source material was a best-selling novel by Stefan Mani, but an opening title card reads: “Based on some shit that actually happened.” The true events at the film’s core reportedly are a bank heist, an insurance scam, the evolution of the narcotics trade from local trafficking to a more organized international operation and the biggest drug bust in the country’s history. The main action takes place from early 1999 through Jan. 1, 2000. It parallels the new-millennium maturation of the Icelandic underworld with a small-town boy’s embrace of a heady life of crime on the mean streets of Reykjavik.
Arrested in a drunken bar fight, Stebbi (Thorvaldur David Kristjansson) runs into hometown acquaintance Toti (Johannes Haukur Johannesson) outside the police station. A fearsome-looking brute, Toti offers to hook him up with a lawyer if needed. In exchange, he ropes Stebbi into combing a crime-scene apartment for a hidden drug stash. Completing that task and dispensing with the thug who tries to intercept him by pounding the guy almost to death, Stebbi gets nicknamed Psycho and put on the payroll.
While he’s living the life with Toti and his flashy crew, Stebbi flourishes. But when Toti teams up with Bruno (Damon Younger), a psychotic sadist with larger ambitions, things start to turn ugly. They wrestle control of the drug trade away from an old-guard crime lord and establish a complex new import and distribution network that supposedly leaves the inner circle invulnerable to investigation. But as cops close in and Bruno’s behavior grows more erratic, Stebbi’s drug-fueled paranoia spirals, prompting him to take rash steps.
Kristjansson is appealing as the central figure but Axelsson shows too little interest in building characters or drawing relationships. There’s ample opportunity to sketch an inner life for Stebbi as an eager-to-impress young rube instantly intoxicated by the dangerous thrills, the camaraderie and the macho bravado of underworld life. Instead he remains somewhat blank and remote. Even his incipient romance with Dagny (Maria B. Bjarnardottir), a flirty blond cokehead who may be under Bruno’s spell, has a by-the-numbers feel.
The cast gets the job done, but they are stuck playing cutouts. The director pays way more attention to style than content, slathering on every trick in the post-Tarantino playbook – jump cuts, freeze frames, fast- and slow-motion, split screen, leaping timelines. Black’s Game doesn’t lack for energy, but its plotting slackens at midpoint, just when the stakes are getting higher and the noose around Stebbi’s neck is tightening.
While Axelsson’s use of a moody techno score alongside occasionally arcane music choices seems influenced by Refn’s Drive, that film combined a cineaste’s love of classic genre staples with muscular atmosphere and characters guided by their own clearly defined ethos. Axelsson has tasty ingredients on tap here, particularly in the backdrop of Iceland as an unworldly criminal free-for-all, whose harsh landscape, unforgiving climate and geographic isolation can breed tough behavior. But he exploits that potential only in the most perfunctory ways, instead piling on extreme violence and gnarly sex with a self-consciousness that blurs the line between the characters’ posturing and the director’s.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (European Film Market)
Cast: Thorvaldur David Kristjansson, Johannes Haukur Johannesson, Damon Younger, Maria B. Bjarnardottir
Production companies: Zik Zak Filmworks, Filmus Productions
Director: Oskar Thor Axelsson
Screenwriters: Oskar Thor Axelsson, based on the novel “Black Curse” by Stefan Mani
Producers: Thur S. Sigurjonsson, Skuli Fr. Malmquist, Arnar Knutsson
Executive producers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Chris Briggs, Andri Sveinsson, Heidar Gudjonsson
Director of photography: Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson
Production designer: Haukur Karlsson
Music: Frank Hall
Costume designer: Margret Einarsdottir
Editor: Kristjan Lodmfjord
Sales: Trust Nordisk
No rating, 100 minutes