Tuesday, December 27, 2016


(Denmark/Germany - 2013; US release 2016)

Based on a series of six (to date) Department Q novels by Danish writer Jussi Adler-Olsen, 2013's THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES was the first of thus far three movie adaptations. Huge post-GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO hits in Scandinavia, the first three DEPARTMENT Q movies were released simultaneously in the US by IFC Films/Sundance Selects in the summer of 2016. Being in Danish with English subtitles, the films are relegated to the arthouse circuit, but they're very commercial police procedurals that will appeal to any fan of the original DRAGON TATTOO trilogy and American TV shows like LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT and more recent offerings like THE KILLING and TRUE DETECTIVE. Lone wolf homicide cop (is there any other kind?) Carl Morck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is a plays-by-his-own-rules type who impulsively leads a raid on a perp's residence without waiting for backup. His impatience results in a shootout that gets one cop killed and his only friend Hardy (Troels Lyby) paralyzed, and Morck himself gets grazed by a bullet that leaves him with a scar on his forehead and noticeable tremors in his left hand. Morck's irate boss Marcus (Soren Pilmark) refuses to put him back on homicide and busts him down to Department Q, a newly-created cold-case unit buried in the basement. Morck's job is to sign off on two cases a week and Marcus sees it as a way to eliminate some bureaucratic red tape and keep Morck out of sight and out of mind, since no one likes him anyway. He's paired in Department Q with Assad (Fares Fares of ZERO DARK THIRTY), a good cop who's never been given a chance because anti-Muslim prejudice has made him as much of an outcast pariah to his colleagues as Morck. Assad sees this as an opportunity but Morck is furious and feels it's beneath him, until he becomes intrigued by the case of Merete Lynggaard (Sonia Richter), an aspiring politician who disappeared from a ferry five years earlier and was presumed to be a suicide by drowning. She was on the ferry with her Uffe (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), her disabled, brain-damaged younger brother, and her body was never found.

Morck doesn't buy that Merete would kill herself and leave her brother alone on the ferry, and of course, he's right. She was abducted from the ferry and has been held captive for five years in a small, pressurized room. Morck and Assad butt heads and go through all the formulaic business that mismatched cop partners do (Assad doesn't understand why Morck is so miserable, while Morck can't stand Assad's coffee), but they very gradually form a grudging respect for one another as they dig deeper and deeper into Merete's past, uncovering info that the detectives who caught the case never bothered to pursue and incurring the wrath of Marcus, who just wants the cold cases closed but not necessarily investigated (of course, he reads them the riot act and makes them both hand over their badges and, like every movie cop who's ever been ordered to hand over his badge, they just carry on with the investigation on their own time). There isn't much in the way of surprises as far as characters and plot construction are concerned, but when these sorts of things are done right, they're pretty hard to resist, and THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES is fast-moving and thoroughly engrossing from the start, thanks to an economically-constructed and no-bullshit screenplay adaptation by Nikolaj Arcel. Arcel also scripted the original 2009 version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, wrote and directed the 2012 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-nominee A ROYAL AFFAIR, and will make his Hollywood debut in 2017 by writing and directing THE DARK TOWER, based on the first book in Stephen King's epic series. Produced by Lars von Trier's Zentropa Entertainments, THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES was directed by Mikkel Norgaard, best known to cult comedy fans for helming KLOWN and its sequel KLOWN FOREVER. Norgaard and Arcel would return for the 2014 sequel THE ABSENT ONE. (Unrated, 97 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(Denmark/Germany/Sweden - 2014; US release 2016)

With its central mystery dealing with a traumatic incident in the life of a teenage girl two decades back and a climax involving the heroes being held prisoner in a rich psycho's secret lair, THE ABSENT ONE can't help but draw comparisons to either version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Here, Morck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Assad (Fares Fares) are spinning their wheels in Department Q, earning scorn and disdain from fellow cops who dismiss them as "The Arab and the Drunk." At a party for their boss Marcus (Soren Pilmark), Morck is confronted by Henning Jorgensen (Hans Henrik Voetmann), a former cop whose career imploded when his twin son and daughter were murdered at an exclusive boarding school. One of their classmates, Bjarne Thorgersen (Kristian Hogh Jeppesen) was convicted, but only served three years thanks to a high-powered defense lawyer clearly out of Thorgersen's parents' price range. The surprisingly light sentence is enough to get Morck to take another look at the case, especially when he's overcome by guilt when Jorgensen commits suicide two hours after Morck has him thrown out of the party. Morck is convinced Thorgersen was the fall guy and he and Assad start looking at other students who were there at the time. Chief among the alumni is Ditlev Pram (Pilou Asbaek, best known to American audiences as Euron Greyjoy on GAME OF THRONES), the wealthy owner of a hotel chain and an all-around shitbag who still pals around with equally wealthy and even sleazier boarding school buddy Ulrik Dybbol (David Dencik, who was in the American remake of DRAGON TATTOO). Pram and Dybbol have a dark, murderous past they want kept under wraps, with Pram even going so far as to hire security expert and freelance hit man Alberg (Peter Christofferson) to kill Kimmie (Danica Curcic), who briefly dated Pram in school and whose life completely derailed into homelessness and prostitution after the murder of Jorgensen's twins. She knows something and Pram wants her dead, which sends Morck and Assad on a frantic search to find her.

THE ABSENT ONE isn't quite as good as THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES. The pace is slower, the presentation a little muddled, a subplot involving Pram's jealousy over his wife's extramarital affairs just bloats the running time, and the story just seems to be a too-formulaic variant on Stieg Larsson. Kaas and Fares are still a winning team who play well off one another (Morck still can't stand Assad's coffee), with Fares' Assad getting a bit more assertive when the situation calls for it. Morck and Assad are joined in the office by Rose (Johanne Louise Schmidt), their new secretary who proves to be a very observant and resourceful addition to the team and one who's hopefully used a little more in the next installment, A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH. (Unrated, 120 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(Denmark/Germany/Norway - 2016)

Screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel was set to direct this third film in the DEPARTMENT Q series, but Hollywood beckoned with the offer to helm THE DARK TOWER, so the job was given to veteran Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland, best known for the 1995 cult film ZERO KELVIN. While Mikkel Norgaard focused on the procedural elements of the investigation, Moland brings a more action-oriented sensibility to DEPARTMENT Q, with no less than two masterful chase/suspense set pieces--a ransom drop from a speeding train and a hospital pursuit of a killer disguised as a doctor--that rank among the most nail-biting sequences of 2016. If familiarity was already creeping in with THE ABSENT ONE, Moland definitely shakes things up with the faster pace and different, more outdoor setting of A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH, without skimping on the grim, grunt detective work that makes Carl Morck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Assad (Fares Fares) such a solid team. As this film opens, Assad is temporarily overseeing things in Department Q with dutiful secretary Rose (Johanne Louise Schmidt), while a down and depressed Morck is on a medical leave following the events at the end of THE ABSENT ONE. When a literal message in a bottle is found washed up on a shoreline, the police bring it in to Assad, almost as a sarcastic joke considering how little respect Department Q gets from the rest of the force. Assad and Rose examine the cryptic eight-year-old message, written in blood, and mentioning "Jehovah." Judging from the misspellings and the grammar, Assad theorizes that it was written by a child and wants to investigate all cases of missing children from the last ten years, but a returning and intrigued Morck tells him there have only been two cases, both closed.

Meanwhile, in another town, a report is made of two siblings being abducted by a stranger in a car. Their parents, Elias (Jakob Ulrik Lohmann) and Rakel (Amanda Collin) belong to a tight-knit religious sect known as "The Lord's Disciples" and insist their kids are visiting Elias' sister. When that doesn't check out, Elias, who refuses to speak with Muslim Assad, confesses that the kids are being held for ransom by Johannes (Pal Sverre Hagen), a charismatic, phony minister who visited the area and took the children. Johannes also matches the description given to police by Trygve (Louis Sylvester Larsen), a 15-year-old who was kidnapped with his brother--who wrote the message in a bottle--eight years ago. Trygve managed to get away but his brother was killed by Johannes. Morck and Assad are convinced history is repeating itself, and that Johannes is a serial kidnapper and murderer. He's also a practicing Satanist who preys on fanatically religious families, usually correctly assuming they'll follow his directions because they have more faith in God and His plans than they do in the police. And in Johannes' twisted mind, by ruthlessly murdering children even after their parents have cooperated, he is robbing the religious of the faith they hold so dear. A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH is a bit thematically deeper than its predecessors, with atheist Morck and religious Assad engaging in a couple of thoughtful theological debates, but there's also some amusing and/or off-the-wall touches, like a short-fused Morck shutting down an enthusiastic forensics nerd who's more interested in explaining his technique than the results, and a church choir performing an oddly unsettling, Danish-language rendition of Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" at a baptism. With a memorably despicable villain in Hagen's Johannes, the chemistry between Kaas and Fares stronger than ever, some exciting action sequences, and a change in approach and style courtesy of Moland, A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH is the best entry yet in the DEPARTMENT Q franchise. (Unrated, 112 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

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