Gambling Chip

There were moments in Lauri Törhönen’s film Gambling Chip (2012) where I honestly didn’t know what the hell was going on. Luckily, neither did our leading man, private eye Jussi Vares (Antti Reini), much of whose relationship with this instalment’s guest star is glossed over in a massive alcoholic blackout. Down on his luck and running low on cash, Vares is rude to a pretty woman who takes too long at a cash machine. Feeling guilty, and quite possibly motivated by her sports car and evident wealth, he uses his private eye skills to track her down and… nope. Blackout. He wakes up the next morning on her sofa, all records of their conversation erased from his mind and from the film.

That’s okay, Sole (Maria Haapkylä) is a bit weird, and wants to bang him now, and before you can shake yourself awake, they’ve become a couple. Vares starts showing up to the pub in a clean shirt, and his drunken buddies scoff that he’s become little more than a gigolo. But this is a Vares film, so something is bound to go wrong. Sole disappears for three days and turns up dead in the forest, leaving Vares as one of the prime suspects in her murder, and honour-bound to find her killer.

Uhkapelimerkki (2007) was one of the more recent Vares novels, in which our hero is less of a bar-room bruiser, and more of a lothario with a laptop. But our hero remains dwarfed by the big picture, as he so often is, stumbling seemingly by accident on the big financial scandal that lurks behind the case he thinks he is chasing. As ever in Vares stories, the main death either goes unsolved or is closed with a huge fatberg of reasonable doubt; a bunch of secondary murders are sort-of explained, but only in passing, a much tougher deus ex machina super-criminal visits rough justice on the small fry, while the white-collar kingpin behind it all seems to get away scot-free. In this case it’s Natunen (Kaarina Hazard) a sinister woman with her own cat-food canning plant, who’s been running an insider-trading scam using the names of people at an old people’s home.

As for the titular gambling chip, it’s a distracting affectation for a supposedly professional hitman, who spends so much time fiddling with it, you wonder if he has time to set the scopes on his sniper rifle. Finnish reviews for this entry in the franchise were particularly damning, possibly because Maria Haapkylä, star of the Maria Kallio police series and hence something of an antithesis to Vares in Finnish media, is pretty much wasted as Sole, a mentally-troubled heiress who may have initiated a whole chain of strikes and counter-strikes in the Finnish underworld out of a fit of man-hating spite. But the critical reaction may also stem from the lost possibilities that Mika Karttunen’s script seems to side-step, including Vares as a police suspect, the possible involvement of one of his old colleagues in some of the subsidiary crimes, and a bizarre sub-plot about the victim’s brother falling in love with cougar barmaid. Vares is something of a bystander for much of the film – his sole contribution to the action for almost half of it is simply being the victim’s boyfriend. He does, eventually, put some crucial clues together, but as in several other Vares films, ends up as little more than a witness to two criminal factions as they follow their own protocols of vengeance.

Perhaps the novel was similarly confused. Its original publication followed the entirely unexpected Vares story, the near-future sci-fi elegy Hard Luck Café (2006) which leapt a generation into the future to a Finland wracked by global warming and overrun with refugees. But such excitements were discounted once more, written off like a bad dream as we returned to Vares’ low-level sleuthing in this story — perhaps our hero has suffered more than one catastrophic blackout, and I will have more to say about this as we continue our Vares movie watchathon. There is, it seems, no career path for our hero. He remains trapped in the wainscots between middle-class Turku and his drinking buddies on the wrong side of the tracks. He never quite makes enough money to get an office, or an actual assistant. Success always eludes him; he’s always back where he started, getting hammered in the same pub, where the real-life owner, Tapio Korpela, has gradually insinuated himself into the action in ever larger walk-on roles, playing himself, here lurking uneasily at the edge of several scenes in a T-shirt that advertises Kukko lager, carrying a tray unconvincingly or making a meal out of operating a television.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

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The Path of the Righteous Men

Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) is approached by Olle (Markku Maalismaa), a pastor from small village in the hinterland, who wants him to solve a crime that the police seem to have given up on. Just for a change, it’s about the murder of a sexy young girl, and there is a long list of potential suspects. Could it be Taisto Raapana (Peter Franzén), a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose Christian sect has dragged many of the already devout locals away from Olle’s church? Or Sulander (Järmo Mäkinen), the seedy printer who publishes Raapana’s religious tracts? Or even the local police, who are demonstratively suspicious of Vares as he pokes into their business?

Not for the first time, the Vares series tests the limits of the Finnish acting profession. The constant need for fresh murder bait, it seems, has exhausted the entire crop of this year’s young Finnish starlets, leaving this episode’s love-interest in the more mature hands of Elisabeth (Merja Larivaara), Raapana’s sexually frustrated wife. Meanwhile, the bent doctor Hento, who secretly prescribes her birth control pills, is played by Kari-Pekka Toivonen, who previously played another role in the second Vares film, Frozen Angel. Famous Finnish crooner Kari Tapio, no stranger to provincial barn dances full of murderous banjo-twanging cultists, I am sure, appears as himself in a concert scene.

Legend has it that the four 2011-12 Vares films were shot back-to-back on a 120-day schedule. And someone has certainly made the most of the economies of scale, presumably shooting a bunch of top-and-tail pub scenes with our hero’s drinking buddies that will suffice for all four movies, while another crew gets on with the aerials. Lauri Törhönen could have been off shooting the prison break sequence for Garter Snake, which involves none of the regulars, while Anders Engström was off with the leading man in the countryside, banking this low-key, low-budget diversion almost entirely featuring a guest cast, released straight to video in 2012.

So even though we begin with the usual overhead shot of summertime Turku, the shadow of the helicopter visible in frame as if to advertise the money spent – no drone footage here! – the bulk of Path of the Righteous Men is set in Ostrobothnia, on the Finnish Baltic coast. Considering the Vares serial’s ongoing feud with things Swedish, I am rather surprised they didn’t make more of the region’s Swedishness. Even its name, “East of the [Gulf of] Bothnia” rather than the more logical “West Finland”, parses it in terms of its geographical relationship to Sweden. I drove through the area once researching the John Grafton incident, and the road signs were in Swedish first and Finnish second. Instead, the script by Mika Karttunen and Katariina Souri, and presumably the 1992 Reijo Mäki novel Vares ja kaidan tien kulkijat on which it is based, focuses on another element of the Finnish hinterland, religious fundamentalism.

It’s certainly refreshing to take Vares out of his Turku home to see a little of the countryside, packed off to a dry county where only low-alcohol beer is available, and his landlord gets a telling-off from the police if he lets him have a snifter of brandy. Raapana’s happy-clappy sect all seems mostly harmless, until Vares realises that the preacher is offering places in heaven in exchange for donations of real estate. There’s certainly something fishy going on, and Vares soon finds himself wading hip-deep into the tawdry secrets of a one-horse town. It’s not clear to me, however, to what extent he actually solves all the mysteries – as with the novels by Reijo Mäki, which mix first- and third-person narratives, there are some scenes of vital exposition that take place when Vares is absent. He certainly stumbles across the truth of who committed the murder, but the degree to which he leaves town having solved all the crimes witnessed by the audience is debatable.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Garter Snake

Sukkanauhakäärme (1989) was one of the earliest Vares novels, set at a time when our hero was still fixated on the life he almost had as a big-shot lawyer. Some faint echoes of this remain in Lauri Törhönen’s 2011 film adaptation, in which Jussi Vares takes on a job tracking attorney Pauli Kontio’s unfaithful wife Annika (Rebecca Viitala), at least partly out of envy for the client seemingly having it all.

Someone who is most definitely having it all is Jesus Lobo (Ilkka Villi), a smarmy piano player who seems to have tupped half the women in Turku. Vares starts tailing him with the expectation that he has found Mrs Kontio’s lover, only to discover that Lobo has a girl in every piano bar. He also tinkles the ivories on the ferry to Stockholm, which makes him an ideal mule for drugs and “special” Swedish porn, the nature of which is never revealed, but presumably involves lukewarm saunas and insufferable smugness. As ever in Vares, Sweden is the source of all criminality and torment, a sinful utopia at the other end of the ferry lines.

Meanwhile, Torsten Rapp (Petri Manninen) busts out of jail. If that sounds like a non sequitur, it is for most of the movie, which begins with the prolonged preparations for a jailbreak. But as soon as Rapp has fought his way out of prison with a guard’s uniform dyed blue with toilet bleach, and an improvised shotgun made out of a crutch, he disappears for half the running time, only popping up again at the end for the now-traditional sequence in which one set of criminals is trumped by an even more violent thug, allowing Vares to save himself and the day by dropping between the cracks and cleaning up the mess they leave behind.

Even by the standards of the Vares films, this is a low-rent offering much more on the straight-to-video end. You can even see this in the box-art, which features a sexy, suspendered thigh flashing a snake tattoo on the DVD cover, but hides this behind a more demure basque version on the cardboard sleeve. This is pretty much all there is to say about the titular “Garter Snake” – an epithet directed at a femme fatale in a throwaway line, but otherwise nothing to do with the film at all. Our hero, meanwhile, finally gets behind the wheel of a car, tooling around town in an old Volvo before someone blows it up.

Vares, as usual, spends most of his time blundering between Turku’s watering holes – a Vares drinking game could only avoid alcohol poisoning if viewers took a sip whenever a glass wasn’t in his hand. We can only imagine the product-placement bingo that precedes each shoot, as the cast roll up in some guy’s pub and offer to make sure the sign gets into shot, as long as everyone can have free booze. In one scene, Vares and his friends each have two drinks in front of them, as if they are desperately trying to cram one more in before closing time. The fact that this was the earliest chronological Vares book to be adapted for the screen also creates a continuity confusion, as Vares “finally” sleeps with his perky part-time stripper neighbour Anna (Maria Järvenhelmi), even though she has been acting like his occasional squeeze in the four previous films.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Kiss of Evil

Private eye Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) is hired to chase up a cold case. The police have given up on the 2009 murder of young Kerttu Malmsten, but her mother Asta (Outi Mäenpää) is prepared to pay thousands of euros if justice can be done. But when a second body is uncovered, seemingly linked to Kerttu, Vares begins to suspect that unless he solves the first two murders, a third might be in the offing.

The third film in the Vares franchise begins with a book launch, as author Luusalmi (Eppu Salminen) finally breaks his ten-year writer’s block. His new novel charts the misadventures of one “Juha Korppi” a tough, unflappable Finnish private eye, inspired by his best friend Vares. In other words, much as Maria Bello in The Mummy 3 shrugged her shoulders and suggested that Rachel Weisz in earlier films was a fictionalised version of her real self, the first two Vares movies have been gently slid out of continuity. As well they might, since not only has Luusalmi been replaced by a new actor, but so has Vares himself. There’s plainly been a lot of water under the bridge in the four years since 2007’s Frozen Angel – enough time has elapsed for Jasper Pääkkönen to be re-cast in an entirely different role. Formerly, he had an unforgettable turn as the sleazy lead singer of a metal band; here he returns as Antidote, a drug addict trying to go straight.

That’s not all that’s changed. The film blows a fair chunk of its budget on a grandstanding aerial shot that sweeps in on Turku from the Baltic Sea, catching it in summer glory and tracking around its cathedral. If the plan was to make Turku look like Miami in the trailers, it was money well spent, but unfortunately for a story in which a major plot point rests on changes in lighting, it’s abundantly obvious that the airborne footage was shot at the height of summer, while the bulk of the action takes place on distinctly greyer days.

New director Anders Engström has plumped for a very different version of Reijo Mäki’s laconic hardman, partly because the plot of Pahan suudelma (1998), the tenth book in the original series, seemed to call for it. Whereas the Vares we first saw in the movies was a man in a vest smacking people with a shovel, Antti Reini sports designer stubble and a carefully crumpled suit. This Vares has had a decade to get used to the modern world, and to adopt modern technology – he takes photos with a mobile phone; he investigates the time-stamps on digital photography, and he hunts his prey using social media. He seems completely at ease in his dealings with the Swedish-surnamed middle classes of Turku, unphased by encounters with ship designers and randy housewives, and far more accommodating to the police, with Inspector Hautavainio (Ilkka Heiskanen) now a cordial ally.

There’s some confusion as to whether this third “film” is a film at all. Despite movie-level production values, it was shot back-to-back with the next four entries in the franchise, and its own distributor’s website divides the cast into “regulars” and “guest stars”. From this point on, some instalments were premiered in cinemas while others went straight to video, with a central cast that would remain static from story to story, while cycling in some big names from Finnish film. In this instalment we have a cameo from Mikko Nousiainen (the best thing in Renny Harlin’s otherwise terrible 5 Days of War) as a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who functions as a conduit of criminal goods to the Turku suburbs.

I rather miss the Vares of old. In the title role, new-guy Reini barely sucks down more than a gallon of beer and a couple of fags in the whole film. He carries a book in his jacket pocket and wears glasses to read through documents, as if the original blue-collar hero has been kidnapped by the pod-people of Turku. But there are still flashes of the original’s dark humour and off-hand misogyny – every woman is either desperate to hump him or shopping for lingerie, and the Finnish underclass and underworld are always just two streets away from whatever gastropub he’s sitting in. Even his part-time chauffeur, taxi-driver Anna (Maria Järvenhelmi) conveniently moonlights as a stripper in order to economise on speaking roles and set up several scenes in a titty bar. But whereas the earlier Vares films were triumphs of low wit, Kiss of Evil heads sadly upmarket, delivering the sort of gumshoe thriller you can see anywhere else on primetime. Pietari Kääpä, in Directory of World Cinema: Finland, suggests that the Vares reboot was a deliberate attempt to muscle in on the Nordic crime market of Wallander and the Millennium series, but if that’s the case, Vares has had to sacrifice much of what made it so scabrously unique.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

V2: Frozen Angel

Seedy second-hand car salesman Jakke (Hannu-Pekka Björkman) is believed by everybody in the Finnish port town of Pori to have been responsible for the death of Mirjam (Johanna Kokko), a sometime prostitute whose death in winter went unnoticed until the snows melted. Jakke hires his former classmate Jussi Vares (Juha Veijonen) to clear his name, neglecting to mention that at the time of the death he was knee-deep in an attempt to blackmail a group of powerful local figures.

Based on Jäätynyt enkeli, the fifth book in the series by novelist Reijo Mäki, the second Vares film continues to lampoon Finnish masculinity with the joyous abandon of a drunk tramp pissing on a dumpster fire. Its cast is an utterly ghastly procession of sweaty, flabby, beered-up chain-smokers stumbling through the plot, double-crossing each other in motels and dive bars. Even the sponsors’ logos that begin the film look like a recipe for the worst night of your life, including (if I remember correctly) Karhu beer, an online poker site, and some guy’s kebab shop.

Stories are like pizzas, observes one character sagely. The thinner the base, the tastier the topping. The victim has slept with half of Pori, sometimes for cash and sometimes for love, enmeshing her in a complex web of possible exes and indifferent one-night stands. The police, as in the first film, can’t be trusted – in the film’s biggest plot hole, the entire case might have been more easily solved if they’d just made a cursory examination of the body. Instead, it’s left to Vares to uncover a complex conspiracy involving Swedish hookers, a heavy metal band, a daisy-chain of polyamorous lesbians, a comic-relief transvestite, and a gang of small-town big-wigs with a terrible secret. Meanwhile, the towering bully Veikko (Jussi Lampi) comes home after serving a stretch in a Swedish prison. “Those Swedes understand Finnish well enough,” he growls, raising his fists. “And if they don’t, there’s always sign language.” Yeah, up yours, Sweden! He hates Swedes the way that Indiana Jones hates Nazis, and is always ready to postpone the action for a few minutes while he beats some up, or in one scene, tries to drown a pair in petrol.

Unlike the novel, which took place in winter, the film tries hard to play up the unbearable heat of the Finnish summer. Yes, really. Everybody is sweating, and telling each other how terribly warm it is all the time, which adds a note of unintended comedy for anyone who’s had to wear an anorak in July. Vares deftly uncovers a conspiracy, hunts down some stolen cash, and fights off the hulking minions sent to dissuade him, but it’s only at the end, as he burpily recounts his mission to his drinking pal Luusalmi that everybody realises he’s forgotten to solve the actual killing.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Vares

Professional con-man Kraft (Jorma Tommila) persuades gullible schoolteacher Eeva (Laura Malmivaara) to help him bust out of jail, smuggling a pistol into their wedding ceremony to fight off his guards. As they wait for their fake travel documents to arrive, Eeva discovers a little too late that Kraft already has the slinky sexpot Ifigenia (Minna Turunen) waiting for him on the outside, and that he intends to bump off his rescuer as soon as the time is right. With nowhere left to turn, Eeva calls Vares (Juha Veijonen), a private eye she vaguely knows from the army reserves, who comes to the rescue with extreme prejudice.

Based on The Yellow Widow, one of the 25 Vares novels by Reijo Mäki, Vares: Private Eye (2004) was a monstrous success in its native Finland, spawning eight sequels in such a pig-pile of productions that later episodes would replace the director and recast the lead. Set in and around the picturesque city of Turku, it largely ignores the medieval charm of Finland’s former capital, focussing instead on a grotty wainscot society of dive bars, sex shops and motels, beneath drab skies and pounding rain. It’s less like Nordic-Noir than a Finnish Elmore Leonard, with a rich cast of characters entirely unaware that they are in a comedy, most obviously in a scene where two men stand around trying to suck their way through a job-lot of 500 chocolate penises that a local entrepreneur is having trouble shifting.

Vares is cast very much in the mould of Harri Nykänen’s Raid, another Finnish anti-hero who flourished in print a decade earlier, and whose own eponymous movie hit Finnish cinemas in 2003. But whereas Raid was an outlaw with a heart of gold, Vares is a smidge closer to the right side of the law. Since lead detective Mikko (Samuli Edelman) is in the pocket of organised crime and cannot be trusted, freelance Vares determines to both rescue the lady and spirit her away from the police.

Helped greatly by English subtitling on the DVD that decompresses laconic Finnish dialogue into sardonic quips, Pekka Lehtosaari’s script delivers a grand guignol of ridiculous blue-collar failures – a criminal kingpin in a polyester kimono, a corrupt detective who projects all his guilty feelings onto his long-suffering wife, and a mullet-sporting getaway driver whose day-job is pizza delivery. Several cast members seemingly stumble through the entire exercise drunk, including the Mary-Sue novelist Luusalmi (Markku Peltola), a shambling alcoholic with stringy hair and the night-sweats, who blunders in and out of the plot to offer worthless barfly philosophy.

It’s difficult to imagine anything more Finnish than this film. A pair of inept hitmen wear plastic gloves at all times, because they are allergic to everything. There is a sex scene in a sauna and plenty of dialogue about pizzas. The protagonist turns up late to the movie that bears his name in order to smack people around with a shovel, while a bunch of Russians swoop in at the last moment to make off with the McGuffin. Best of all, a throwaway scene features a naked Finnish girl serving as a human table for a banquet of meat products, wearing Swedish meatballs on her nipples and a sausage on her chest. This film is much more fun than it ought to be, and is probably best enjoyed in a cinema full of drunken Finnish truck-drivers, who won’t question too much the hokier nature of the plot, such as the likelihood that shooting someone point-blank with a grenade launcher is liable to have adverse consequences.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.