Back in 1996, Nicolas Winding Refn directed a quirky little crime film known as Pusher. Pusher was all about drug dealing and, as a film about drug dealing; it was very much a part of an existing genre. By and large, works of genre in foreign languages – particularly languages as obscure as Danish – tend not to do all that well. However, by stripping out the glamour that had crept into the genre in the wake of films like Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), De Palma’s Scarface (1983), and Van Peebles’ New Jack City (1991), in order to replace it with a grungy cinema vérité-style depiction of life amongst the junkies and criminals of Denmark, Winding Refn not only reinvigorated the genre, he found himself with a huge hit.
A hit that produced not one but two sequels – Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands (2004), and Pusher III: I’m The Angel Of Death (2005). Set amidst the Turkish immigrant population of Germany and bathed in just as much grunge and squalor as Pusher, Özgür Yildirim’s Chiko is clearly an attempt to recapture some of that Danish magic. However, despite strong performances and a wonderful opening act, Chiko ultimately struggles to overcome a decidedly cliché-ridden and dramatically lethargic script.
Chiko (Denis Moschitto) and Tibet (Volkan Ozcan) are the best of friends. Having grown up in the same corner of Hamburg’s Turkish immigrant community they consider themselves brothers and when Tibet’s mother needs renal dialysis, Chiko is there to help because he considers her to be his mother. Lacking jobs, educations and anything aside from their friendship and their youth, the pair team up with car-owning friend Curly (Fahri Ogun Yardim), and decide to make a name for themselves as drug dealers. Instead of actually selling drugs, though, what they do is smack around the local drug dealers until they eventually come to the attention of local drug kingpin and music producer Brownie (Moritz Bleibtreu).
Brownie summons Chiko in order to seek redress for his beaten up dealer but, upon meeting Chiko, he is so impressed that he offers the man a job: shift ten kilos of weed in ten days and you’ve got a job. Initially, Chiko, Tibet and Curly do just that, but then something goes wrong: Tibet gets greedy. Quick to realise that Tibet has been ripping him off, and selling to school kids, Brownie acts to punish the idiot whilst keeping on good terms with the more intelligent and reliable Chiko. This places Chiko’s relationships with Brownie and Tibet under impossible pressure: Brownie has offered to take Chiko with him when he moves from weed to coke but Tibet is screaming for vengeance. Clearly, Chiko has to decide and he picks Brownie.
Up to this point, Chiko works brilliantly. The depiction of the tightly knit Turkish community is compelling, as is the relationship between the three friends whose knockabout playfulness and careful desire for self-definition against the social stereotypes of the ‘good Muslim’ is reminiscent not only of Audiard’s beautiful A Prophet (2009), but also Morris’ Four Lions (2010). Keep a particular eye out for a drug-dealing montage that is technically superb in its upbeat triumphalism. Also nicely realised is Chiko’s sweetly affecting relationship with Meryem (Reyhan Sahin) the prostitute who lives next door. But then things start to go wrong…
Having turned his back on his entirely unsympathetic friend, Chiko’s success as a coke dealer is celebrated by a second and much more cliché-ridden montage.
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Gone is the low-key sweetness of the boys engaging in some endearingly childish horseplay whilst dealing bags of weed to hippy chicks. Now it is all new Mercedes, wads of cash and nightclub openings. The movement out of the territory of Winding Refn and into the world of Scorsese is self-defeating and utterly depressing. It feels like a betrayal of the cultural uniqueness that sucked us into the film’s first act.
Even more problematic is the script’s attempt to derive some pathos from Chiko’s sudden decision to fuck up his life and those of everyone else in order to protect his smack-using friend Tibet. Had Tibet been drawn as a sympathetic character from the start then maybe this final act might have worked. Had Chiko’s decision to turn his back on Tibet not been presented as an act of entirely rational and justifiable self-preservation, then maybe Chiko’s loyalty to Tibet might have had some emotional resonance. However, because the script provides us with neither of these emotional touchstones, the dramatic thrust of Chiko’s final act is entirely self-defeating. It simply does not work.
Despite a script that goes seriously off the rails about halfway through the film, Chiko has more than enough attitude and atmosphere to be deserving of your attention.