“Easy Money” is being released in the United States under the banner “Martin Scorsese Presents,” an honor it most likely earned because the legendary filmmaker felt flattered by the movie’s attempts to emulate his organized crime dramas, particularly “Goodfellas.” Everyone else will wonder why they didn’t just re-watch a Scorsese joint instead, for “Easy Money” is merely a technically proficient copycat job, minus the soul.
It’s also in Swedish. The film was helmed by Stockholm-born director Daniel Espinosa, who later went on to make the Hollywood action pic “Safe House,” starring Denzel Washington, which was quite the box office hit earlier this year (don’t mind the confusing chronology). Espinosa’s approach was considerably different on the two films: Where “Safe House” had a pulpy, energetic spirit about its hyper-violence, “Easy Money” takes on a darker tone, desperate to prove its own seriousness.
The protagonist of “Easy Money” is J.W. (Joel Kinnaman), an economics student who works nights as a cab driver to pay for the posh image required to schmooze with Stockholm socialites. Lured by the prospect of the film’s title, J.W. ultimately can’t resist an offer from the taxi company boss to join in his secondary business — the cocaine trade.
One good thing about “Easy Money” is that it doesn’t indulge J.W. in a conventionally lavish honeymoon period with his illicit new career, always depicting organized crime for the dangerous, corrupt entity that it is. In fact, his effective initiation into the business is saving escape convict Jorge (Matias Varela) from a brutal beating by Serbian cartel henchman Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic). The threat of the Serbs, who are determined to oust any and all competition, constantly looms.
But outside of that smart decision by writers Maria Karisson, Hasson Loo Sattavandi, and Frerik Wikström, the story is a standard-issue treatment of a gangster’s rise and inevitable fall. All the clichés are there, from the attractive girlfriend (Lisa Henni) who is at first oblivious to her man’s secret life and later inexplicably doesn’t consider it a deal-breaker, to the temptation for the protagonist to switch allegiances in the third act.
Further, the writers’ few narrative inventions simply don’t gel with the movie’s grave tone due to their over-the-top nature. For instance, Mrado has to take his eight-year-old daughter on jobs because her drug addict mom lost custody. In a campy, more outwardly hyperbolic film like Espinosa’s “Safe House,” such a gimmick can work, but in the humorless “Easy Money,” putting the child in danger comes off as a pathetic attempt to manipulate the viewer’s emotions.
The uninspired story arc is held up to some degree by the performances, which are all solid. Kinnaman has definite charisma in the lead role, which he will hopefully be able put to better use when he stars in the upcoming “RoboCop” remake. Matias Varela and Dragomir Mrsic are both highly believable as drug thugs — especially the latter, which makes sense because he actually was one earlier in life. But even with solid acting to keep its heart beating, “Easy Money” displays none of the originality and vigor needed to distinguish itself as a worthy addition to the crime genre.