R: Hit First, Hit Hardest (18)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner26/08/2011

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 99 mins

Impressively directed and superbly written, this is a powerful prison drama with strong performances and moments of shocking violence, though it's also relentlessly bleak, to the point where it feels heavy-handed.

What's it all about?
Co-directed by Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer, R: Hit First, Hit Hardest (the subtitle has been added by the UK distributors) stars Pilou Asbaek as Rune, a Danish criminal who's transferred to a new prison after stabbing an inmate. Rune soon finds himself at the bottom of the food chain and bullied by the other prisoners on a daily basis, even after he viciously beats up an Albanian inmate on the orders of “the Mason” (Roland Moller).

Things start to look up when Rune befriends Rashid (Dulfi Al-Jabouri) and comes up with an ingenious drug-smuggling scheme that makes him suddenly valuable within the prison hierarchy, specifically the Mason's boss, Carsten (Jacob Gredsted). However, it's only a matter of time before Rune's scheme is uncovered ...

The Good
Asbaek (who bears a strong facial resemblance to Michael Shannon) is excellent as the perpetually haunted Rune, delivering a performance that's utterly compelling because you're never quite sure what he's thinking. There's also strong support from Dulfi Al-Jabouri and from Roland Moller as the charismatic Mason, while Kim Winther is superb as ostensibly sympathetic prison guard Kim.

Lindholm and Noer maintain a strong grip on their material throughout and orchestrate some intensely powerful scenes, most notably Rune's vicious surprise attack on the Albanian. They also generate an extremely suspenseful atmosphere, partly through the use of Dardennes-style tight close-ups, forcing close identification with Rune and his immediate surroundings.

The Bad
The film's most problematic element is that it's relentlessly bleak, to the point where it feels heavy-handed, as if the filmmakers were overly labouring the harsh realities of prison life. To that end, there's a wrenching third-act shift that works brilliantly in its initial impact, but doesn't quite work in the immediate aftermath and feels unsatisfactory as a result.

That said, in amongst the bleakness, the film does have one extraordinary sequence that's almost beautiful, where the inmates get a pair of budgies to play football and suddenly these vicious, brutal characters are humanised, as they laugh and joke together.

Worth seeing?
R: Hit First, Hit Hardest is an impressively directed Danish prison drama that packs a powerful emotional punch, thanks to a strong script and a terrific central performance from Pilou Asbaek. Recommended.

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Content updated: 15/12/2017 00:42

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