A new breed of criminal emerged at the tail end of the twentieth century. Gangsters and drug barons who had operated in Reykjavik since the 1970s were overthrown by a more brutal regime. The more “innocent” era of soft drugs and hobbyist pushers was replaced by one which saw the flourishing of a number of organised crime groups that were more willing to use extreme violence.
Author Stefán Máni’s novel Black’s Curse (Svartur leik á) was based on a detailed investigation he had conducted into Reykjavik’s underworld. A number of real-life events were incorporated into the powerful and eruptive novel’s narrative.
Aside from being encouraged to emphasise violence, screenwriter and director Óskar Thór Axelsson was given a relatively free hand in adapting the novel for the screen. A long time fan of the genre, he saw his first gangster film at the age of eleven. Referencing his favouite films, he throws in moments which will delight fellow aficionados and is committed to honouring the novel’s realist approach.
Stebbi (Thor Kristjansson – Life in a Fishbowl, Dracula Untold) has spent a night in a police cell. Released from custody on bail, he bumps into old school friend Tóti (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson – Game of Thrones, The Press, The Court). Tóti is now an enforcer and debt collector for Iceland’s biggest drug dealer, Jóa Pharaoh. Stebbi is promised an introduction to a lawyer who will ensure all charges against him are dropped if he does one job for Tóti.
Accepted into the gang, Stebbi believes he has hit the big time. The high-life comes at a price, risks intensify as he descends deeper into the gang network.
When Tóti’s gang joins forces with psychotic mob boss Bruno’s (Damon Younger – Dirty Pretty Things, The Girl in the Cafe) outfit they eliminate the old guard and escalate their activities. Fuelled by copious amounts of cocaine and convinced they are somehow invincible the gang unleashes a wave of violence across the city.
Stebbi’s state of sociopathic bliss is shattered when he is raped by Bruno, A life on the edge in a world of bank robberies drug-dealing, extortion, and pimping had until that moment seemed free of personal consequence.
Indebted to The Godfather, Goodfellas, Trainspotting, and the Pusher trilogy, the film is a pacy hard-edged thriller. Director Óskar Thór Axelsson and producer Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Pusher) bring a freshness of touch to the genre and make effective use of the Icelandic setting.
With a knowing wink, the director has delivered a film that ticks all boxes in terms of what viewers want from a drug heist film and tossed a uniquely local message into the mix.
Made for a media-savvy audience, Black’s Game plays with and kicks against assumptions. The script’s subversion of expectations does more than wrong-foot, it offers a commentary on Icelandic society in the late 1990s. Seen through the prism of a post-economic meltdown perspective, the idea that a drug heist might be more profitable than a bank robbery seems all too plausible.
Brutally realistic, Black’s Game is an energised hard-edged glimpse into Reykjavik’s underworld that never feels like a debut film. Referencing of its influences sometimes seems a bit too on the nose but it’s nontheless an enjoyable film filled with enough original moments to make it a memorable movie.