Though it focuses on Milo (Zlatko Buric), a Yugoslav drug dealer familiar to anyone who has seen Pusher and Pusher II, the series' most recent installment takes place in a different world than the two previous films. Milo may only be a couple of rungs up the narcotics trade ladder from Frank and Tonny, but he lives the life of a respectable businessman, and as a result is light years from the hardscrable universe occupied by those men.
In place of the dingy, tiny apartments occupied by the characters in the previous films, Milo owns a spacious, pristine flat in the suburbs, complete with an enclosed backyard. When he drives through the city, the buildings literally look cleaner and more modern, and the sun a little brighter. Though he, like Frank and Tonny, relies primarily on drugs sales for his income, Milo also owns a small club, a business that seems stable and well-established. In addition, he actually has pocket money -- none of the day-to-day, hour-to-hour desperation experienced by those below him in the food chain for Milo. Instead, he pays cash for major incidental expenses, and can afford to both rent out a restaurant for his beloved daughter Milena's (Marinela Dekic) 25th birthday and hire what appears to be a party-planner for the occasion, as well.
Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death opens somewhere the series has never ventured before: An NA meeting. Milo is there, reporting with absolute sincerity and commitment that he is on his fifth day -- this time -- without drugs. Though his focus at that moment is on Milena's upcoming party, he sincerely wants to be through with drugs forever -- when the meeting closes with the serenity prayer, followed by a shouted hope to return the following day, Milo's participation is full and heartfelt. Apart from a short interlude extracting smuggled ecstasy from a van just arrived from Holland, he looks for all the world like a normal, upper-class father, concerned about work and pleasing his spoiled daughter.
Gradually, though, the combined stresses of that ecstasy shipment (he was expecting heroin) and Milena's party -- for which he's agreed to do much of the cooking -- pile up on Milo. Waiting in a Chinese restaurant for the food that will replace an awful dish he made (it's gratifying to fans of the series to learn that, in the ten years since the first film, he still hasn't learned to cook), he runs into Kurt (Kurt Nielsen), a dealer who, despite knowing that Milo is on the wagon, leaves him a hit of heroin. When Milo puts his hand over the tiny bag of white powder, the soundtrack explodes into a burst of static, and the movie for the first time taps into the hypnotic magic of its predecessors.
From the moment Milo smokes the heroin, his night begins to spiral out of control. Though the events that transpire have nothing to do with his drug use, his bad decision-making is only compounded by the ever-increasing volume of heroin in his bloodstream, and things begin to happen to him, rather than because of him. A simple decision to sell off the ecstasy for some quick cash results in two unfamiliar dealers using his club as their base for an attempt to sell a girl into sex slavery, and a baffled Milo finds himself waiting on them hand and foot. And a day that began at an NA meeting ends, chillingly, with dismemberment and death.
Due in part to the fact that Milo is neither as appealing as Pusher's Frank, nor as tragic as Pusher II's Tonny, the story itself is less engaging than those of the series' previous installments. Perhaps because he lacks the everyman qualities that were so crucial to the earlier films, audiences tend to watch Milo rather than aching for him, or fearing with him. Additionally, the story is a looser one, stranger and less focused than those in Pusher and Pusher II; as a result, the film lacks the all-encompassing emotional grasp of those films. Instead of enclosing viewers inside its strange, breathless bubble, Pusher III shows us a distant, chilly world, occupied by Milo and his associates, but where we are not allowed to tread.
That said, though Pusher III never reaches the heights of its predecessors, it is by no means a failure. It's fascinating to watch things escalate for Milo, and chilling to see him, stoned out of his mind, methodically solving his problems and cleaning up his messes. Another sign of how different Pusher III's world is from that of the earlier films is that there are ways to solve his problems: When Frank would simply have fled, Milo calls in favors; when Tonny would have waited to be punished, Milo seeks out answers. And while the previous two films traded in a reality that was never entirely unfamiliar, Milo's final solution leaves audiences far behind: We are left watching with a sort of horrified awe at his combined stupidity, audacity and power.
Though the bulk of Pusher III is perhaps not up to the lofty standards he set for himself with the rest of the series, in the film's final scene, director Nicolas Winding Refn offers a conclusion to the trilogy so perfect that we can do nothing but tip our hats to his great talent and, perhaps more importantly, his wonderful patience and self-control. The Pusher series is arguably one of the most accomplished crime series ever made, and to end it with the quiet that Refn conjures up is only further proof of his abundant skill as a filmmaker.
Magnolia Films is releasing the Pusher Trilogy in a few theaters around the country over the coming weeks, starting in New York's Village Cinema today. In these limited screenings, the films will be shown back-to-back, allowing American viewers to see them in a single sitting for the first time. As only the first in the series is available on DVD in the US, anyone living near one of the theaters would be wise to take advantage of this opportunity. Our review of Pusher was published on Wednesday, and Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands was reviewed here yesterday.