When last we saw the social-climbing hero of Easy Money, a grimly derivative Swedish crime thriller, he was rotting away in a prison cell—the high price of getting mixed up in Stockholm’s cocaine business. Based, like its predecessor, on a novel by Jens Lapidus, the questionably necessary sequel Easy Money: Hard To Kill picks up three years later, as unlucky JW (Joel Kinnaman, star of this week’s RoboCop reboot) serves the final hours of his sentence. His pretty-boy features blemished and bruised, his innocence plainly lost to the big house, this one-time student is eager to get his life back on track. But once on the outside, JW discovers that going straight isn’t so simple: His parents want nothing to do with him, his girl (Lisa Henni) has moved on, and the business plan he hatched behind bars has been stolen out from under him. Is a backslide into backdoor business inevitable?
Reuniting the surviving characters of the original, including Chilean ex-convict Jorge (Matias Varela) and Serbian lowlife Mahmoud (Fares Fares), Easy Money: Hard To Kill plays like a feature-length dramatization of that Michael Corleone quote about thinking you’re out but getting pulled back in. True to its franchise roots, the film is atmospheric, well acted, and frustratingly intent on draining every last drop of pleasure from the genre-movie conventions it cannibalizes. Plenty of fine dramas have sought to deglamorize the outlaw life, demonstrating how it swallows up and spits out lost souls. (Gomorrah, for example, is one of the least romantic depictions of organized crime ever put to celluloid.) But the poker-faced Easy Money series is neither fun nor especially meaningful: Whereas the original felt like a gloomy two-hour lecture on how crime doesn’t pay, Hard To Kill expresses the idea that there are no second chances.
Realizing how stuck he really is in his social stratum—“Class is something you’re born with,” a backstabbing business partner sneers—JW soon finds his schemes overlapping with those of some old accomplices. There’s something depressingly schematic about the way director Babak Najafi, replacing prior helmsman Daniel Espinosa, crosscuts among the mad scrambles of his down-on-their-luck protagonists. Watching something like The Wire, which depicts years in the lives of its players, it’s possible to comprehend how desperate people become cogs in a criminal machine. Hard To Kill attempts to capture a similar system of exploitation through narrative shortcuts; as a result, its characters just seem like the playthings of cruel fate (or cruel screenwriting, as it were). A trilogy capper is on the way; easy money says it pivots around a shopworn genre platitude—something about living and dying by the sword, perhaps?