Sheriff

The Finnish police are left baffled by a double murder in a Turku house – a former cop ritually sacrificed and his girlfriend shot in the head. Private investigator Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) is hired by the dead girl’s godmother to look for clues, and soon deduces that everybody has been looking in the wrong place. The police assume that the female victim was merely collateral damage; Vares realises that she was the real target, and her mutilated boyfriend merely a smokescreen. But why would anyone want to kill a highly-respected accountant?

The latest, and so far, last of the Vares films displays a visible stylistic shift from Hannu Salonen, a Germany-trained thriller director who would go on to make Arctic Circle (2018). It restores the comic-book freeze frames and mottos from the earliest films, and has a super-processed, enhanced look that fiddles with odd lens choices to stretch human figures or flatten out backgrounds. Audi is one of the film’s sponsors, but I don’t see any Audi product placement – perhaps it is worth more to the company to pay the Finns to repeatedly abuse, blow up and roll a bunch of Volvos.

Vares does some actual detective work, being ideally placed to notice that, like him, the murders sit on the borderline between the everyday and the criminal underworld. Through his druggie associate Antidote (Jasper Pääkkönen, presumably just before he got his role in Vikings), he is introduced to a council of criminal kingpins who bankroll ventures that fall outside the scope of the mainstream economy – deposits for contraband smuggling, down payments for getaway cars, and, if my own bitter experiences are anything to go by, mortgages for expats. His quest drags him into Finland’s black economy, with its own set of rules and protocols, and surreal daytime speakeasies where men sit on leather sofas and listen to Puccini. In other words, this the Vares series’ answer to Shadow Line, caught between the police and the criminals, each using their own methods in the pursuit of the murderer.

The new look and new director, not to mention the introduction of Shostakovich (Jukka-Pekka Palo), Vares’ self-styled patron from the underworld, could amount to a soft reboot for the whole series, since the novel Sheriff was the first of a sub-trilogy within the long-running novel sequence. Writer-director Salonen has made some brutal decisions with the regular cast, relegating Vares’ usual drinking buddies to a couple of cameos in the closing scenes, and recasting the journalist Ruuhio. Previously played by the clean-cut, ever-youthful Mikko Lempilampi, who presumably has better things to do shooting the same year’s Girl-King, he has suddenly been switched for my favourite Finnish actor, Mikko Kouki, who looks utterly ridiculous here as a gum-chewing slob with a man-bun. I don’t understand why they bothered to say this character was Ruuhio at all; it would have been surely been less disruptive to just give him a different name.

They certainly didn’t keep the original name of squeeze-of-the-week Milla (Karoliina Blackburn), a motorcycle-riding hacker who is swift to reveal to Vares that she only pretends to be a lesbian to hold off unwanted suitors. In the original book, she was known by the actionable pseudonym Harriet “Harry” Potter, the now-obscured origin of a joke in the script that points out the only thing she has in common with the schoolboy wizard is that they both like girls.

The publication of the English translation of the Sheriff book in 2015 permitted me the chance to read a Vares novel and to notice some asides that are not repeated in the film. For example, in the book Vares is momentarily troubled by a vision of himself, strapped to a bed in an asylum, while a nurse reads out newspaper headlines about catastrophic flooding on the Finnish coast. Is this a nightmare? Or is it a premonition about the events of the science fiction coda, Hard Luck Café? He is also brooding about a case that he failed to solve, the death of Mirjam in the snow a decade earlier, as chronicled in Frozen Angel. Meanwhile, an aside reveals that his friend, the author Luusalmi has only ever published a single book, making a mockery of numerous past claims about his erudition. It’s almost as if the chickens are coming home to roost in this late addition to the Vares canon, as both author and hero look back over their past adventures and try to make sense of them all, dredging up some of their earlier claims for a bit of tardy due diligence.

Sheriff, as the book repeatedly reminds the reader, is the Finnish title of the film better known in English as High Noon – one of many Western references buried within the Vares books. But Sheriff also seems like an attempt by author Reijo Mäki to engage with something that has been lurking at the edges of his world for years. Every now and then in Vares stories we get a glimpse of the wider criminal underworld, an entire wainscot society with its own rules, regulations and regulators. In Sheriff, Vares finds himself digging into the mechanics of one of the institutions of this shadow world, a criminal bank prepared to loan money at high rates to high-risk, illegal propositions. It’s not quite The Wire, but more John Wick, as Vares comes to realise the subtle codes he has ignored, inscribed on the very walls of some of the criminals he is chasing.

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

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Tango of Darkness

At least, for once, we aren’t looking for someone who’s killed a girl. The six-year-old cold case Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) rakes over in Tango of Darkness (2012) is the murder of crooner Harry Koivikko (Jani Muurinen), found on the floor of a seedy flophouse in Turku. Like the partitive grammar case that fixes Finnish nouns if no other declension is available, Vares shambles through this movie picking up other people’s mess. His drinking buddy, journalist Ruuhio (Jussi Lempilampi) has already solved the mystery, but has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Vares must solve the case again in order to find out what has happened to Ruuhio, turning even the drama in this film into a case of reheated leftovers. Meanwhile, hard-man Veikko Hopea (Jussi Lampi), last seen locked in a fridge in Frozen Angel (2007) gets out of prison. “Hmm,” I said to the sofa, “I wonder if we’re going to watch him travel across Finland at occasional intervals throughout the film, only to arrive in the nick of time to save Vares from a bunch of other criminals?” No spoilers; I’ll let you guess. He also orders a room-service haircut from a Russian hooker called Olga, and then inveigles her into a blowjob, so… you know, that’s a bit of comedy business.

The film permits a brief glimpse into Finland’s tango culture, an odd relic of fifties nightclubs and dance-hall customs that continues to flourish in the domestic music scene. It does, indeed, launch a number of local pop stars, including Jari Sillänpää, a man with whose work I have become familiar with over the years because I am often mistaken for him by drunken Finnish cougars. The Finnish tango scene is big enough to support a number of artistes touring small-town venues with CDs in boxes, as long as they keep more or less to a repertoire that neither scares off the young nor annoys the old. Their lives, loves and scandals also seem to form the main material for the blue-collar press whenever a week goes by in which a ski-jumper hasn’t beaten his wife. Ballroom dancing’s enduring popularity, even in the 21st century, is a quaintly unifying element of Finnish life, responsible for, among other things, a bunch of guaranteed cross-generational floor-fillers at Finnish parties, as well as a talent show on Finnish television that I call Pixie Ballgown Accordion Smackdown. The quintessential Finnish dance-hall classic is “Satumaa” (The Fabled Land) written by Unto Mononen in 1955 and most famously sung by Reijo Tapale in 1962. It’s become a doleful staple of the male tango singers, and is a lament for a fairytale paradise forever beyond a man’s reach. At Kalevalanmaa, the centenary celebration of Finnishness put on by the Finnish National Opera in 2017, a performance of “Satumaa”, set at a country dance, was the cue for an audience singalong. In this film, it also lends its name to the hostel where Koivikko’s body was found, which has become a place of pilgrimage for his female fans.

The book on which this film is based, Pimeyden tango (1997) was published the year before the novel that was previously adapted into Kiss of Evil. In other words, beneath the skin, we are still dealing with a younger author writing a younger Vares, seemingly the sub-set of stories in which his job is to saunter in years after the police have given up, and inadvertently tie together the vital loose strands. Sometimes, as here, this is simply by presenting himself as bait to lure the criminals out of hiding, like a beer-soaked, gumshoe Christ. True to Reijo Mäki’s original novels, Vares is not present in several scenes in which motivations are explained and seemingly random deus ex machina events are set up. We, the viewers, know why certain events occur, but he presumably wanders off simply baffled by what has just happened to him.

As for the regulars, the biggest continuity change comes in the form of Vares’ neighbour Anna (Maria Järvenhelmi), a sometime stripper and formerly his driver of choice, who is now apparently in a relationship with Ruuhio the journalist. Vares tools around town in another Volvo, suspiciously like the one that got blown up in Garter Snake (2011). “I wonder,” I said to the sofa, “if this Volvo will meet a similarly explosive fate.” No spoilers, right? Vares is tracking the supposedly unfaithful wife of a local businessman, unaware that his client is a nutjob liable to want him dead if he doesn’t deliver the right evidence. “I wonder,” I said to the sofa, “if the client will try to have him killed, but accidentally kill someone else who has just killed another person who was going to kill Vares?” Perhaps I am getting a feel for the way that plots work in the Vares films, but if so, I have miscalculated the degree of screwing that goes on in this one, with Vares failing to bed absolutely anyone on camera. He does spend a while flirting with the sassy back-up singer Donna (Lolla Wallinkoski), a woman whose sole job in this movie is to convincingly hold a tune, at which she spectacularly fails. “Do you want to hear my new single?” she says to Vares as they drive along in his doomed Volvo, before turning on the stereo and subjecting us all to a caterwauling crime against music. She’s the 1997 Miss Scandinavia, although Finland isn’t in Scandinavia, so your guess is as good as mine how that happened.

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

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.

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.

The Girls of April

Hard-up Finnish journalist Ruuhio (Mikko Lempilampi) leans on his drinking buddy, private eye Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) to poke around a cold case that has long been forgotten. Fifteen years earlier, three girls from Turku disappeared in swift succession – maybe they left the country, maybe they were murdered – but the town has already forgotten the scandal.

This is probably because the town is munted. Antti Reini’s second outing as Vares rarely strays far from the pub, which seems to be the location for much of Turku’s thinking, drinking and big pimping. He’s been so smashed for the last decade that he hasn’t even noticed that his drinking buddy Luusalmi (everybody is a drinking buddy) not only dated one of the missing girls, but wrote a book in which he outlined his personal theory about their disappearance. Luusalmi, however, is not renowned for his problem-solving skills – he thinks they were in a sapphic love triangle, and that one bludgeoned the other two to death with a dildo before running off to Lesbos to become a tour guide.

Ruuhio’s challenge to Vares to bring him some reheated column inches is only the first of a remarkable series of unlikely coincidences, which put most of the suspects, victims and investigators not only in the same city, but often in the same building, and sometimes the same pub. One of the girls, it transpires, didn’t even leave town, but put on a wig and switched careers to become a fortune-teller. We see her in the opening sequence, telling Vares’ hot mess of an ex-girlfriend that she knows just the guys to put the scare on our hero, a pair of off-the-peg thugs, one of whom also used to date one of the murder victims. Meanwhile, menacing bad-guy “Tristan da Cunha” (Taisto Oksanen) gets off the ferry from Sweden (it’s always the ferry from Sweden, which is like Mordor if you’re Finnish) and soon establishes his bad-guy credentials by picking up a man in a gay club, force-feeding him a cock-shaped birthday cake, and then savagely murdering him so he can squat in his apartment.

Based on Huhtikuun tytöt, the 15th book in Reijo Mäki’s Vares series, Girls of April (2011) is an odd choice for adaptation, coming right behind a similar cold-case in the previous instalment, Kiss of Evil. One wonders how problematic a dozen other novels had to have been for this one to get the greenlight. Our hero is so drunk, in fact, that he doesn’t dare get behind the wheel of a car, and travels everywhere either on public transport or in a taxi driven by a part-time stripper. A vital clue is provided for him when his cat goes missing, prompting him to shamble, sozzled, into his next-door neighbour’s storage unit and kick over a box full of 15-year-old photographs. If anyone is more incompetent than Vares, it’s the police, who need him to tip them off that there’s been a murder, and who do not seem to have drawn any of the dots together on the case for the last decade and a half. Vares has stumbled into a complex web of blackmail and double-crossing over high-end prostitutes, and half-heartedly fends off the blunt and clinical advances of one victim’s sister, who has been told by a fortune-teller that he’s going to be the best shag she has that year. Admit it, we’ve all been there.

Screenwriter Katariina Souri (who, as Kata Karkkainen, was also the December 1988 Playboy Playmate of the Month, because this isn’t surreal enough already) takes her hands off the wheel and lets Mäki’s original story carom through its plot. She appears to have been hobbled not only by the original story, but by what is now clearly the restrictions of network television, with several gruesome murders happening off-camera, leaving characters to coyly tiptoe around even their descriptions of what has happened. In one crucial moment, a death is merely hinted at by the sight of a pile of fresh earth, and the viewer has to embark on a detective mission of their own to work out who’s been killed. Meanwhile, elements of what I blush to call magic-realism creep in, with visions in a crystal ball that appear to accurately reflect events going on elsewhere, and Vares himself haunted by sado-masochistic dreams in which the murder victims seemingly try to offer him clues.

Souri, like Mäki himself and every other author working today, must also grapple with the narrative problems introduced by the singularity of social media. Vares is investigating a case from 1995 (1983 in the original novel), at least in part because 21st century metadata would have made it so much easier to crack. My bank statements today will tell you how much I spent on booze last month, where I bought my groceries, and even which cab I took home on Monday. Such an information overload has confronted the world of the crime novelist with a huge crisis; it has ruined half of the plots that used to work, solved a bunch of cases within moments, and forced criminals, police and, indeed, authors to come up with a whole new bunch of ruses, hacks and tricks to carry on their trade. Dating from 2004, the original novel is ironically more recent than the three sources that were adapted into movies before it (1999, 1990 and 1998 respectively), but looks back to the 20th century for its crime and its evidence.

Souri does add one moment of subtle drama, drawing fittingly on the nature of alcoholism, or rather, its absence. A kindly supporting character is revealed to have been a complete bastard 15 years ago – entirely reformed through giving up the bottle, he is something of an object lesson to the other cast members, although the change in him is so complete as to call into question whether he could even be considered to be the same person. One would hope that a female scenarist would find some fun to be had with the outrageously toxic masculinity of the Vares cast, but instead she leaves them to it, perhaps on the understanding that anyone who doesn’t already see these characters as ludicrous failures is probably a lost cause.

In the lead role, Antti Reini remains counter-intuitively charming – there is no evidence in the script that he is anything more than a piss-artist, but he exudes heroic charisma, even when unsteadily toasting his chums in the eighth or ninth bar-room scene of the film, or shooting the shit in his mate’s bookshop. The women in this film, meanwhile, are all crazy bitches, fit to be banged or murdered, or banged then murdered. Much like the growing pile of corpses that turn Inspector Morse‘s Oxford into a comedically unsafe place to live, Vares’ Turku is a veritable minefield if you are a girl in a miniskirt. Even the danger is chauvinist – girls and gays are expendable, but the straight men in Vares’ world live oddly charmed lives. If you’re a good guy, even the criminals sent to beat you up will give you a free pass, and even the murderer you’re chasing will cut you loose if he sees another criminal planning to kill you. Violence is occasionally dealt out to men, but usually by criminals dispensing rough justice to other criminals. Vares’ Turku has to be the cushiest police assignment anywhere; you just sit in the pub all day and wait for one bunch of thugs to murder another. Meanwhile, the blonde at the bar is giving you the eye, and is probably up for it.

The Vares series seems to dwell in a time warp where the latter part of the twentieth century never happened, when men were men and women were grateful. It often seems uncaring or ignorant of the social contract that is to be found even within old-school sexism – call it chauvinism or chivalry, the code implies that the womenfolk within it are protected, but the men of Vares’ world inevitably arrive years too late to save a damsel in distress, although they are available to shag her sister, and/or write a book in which they call her a dyke.

If you asked me to pitch a more “Finnish” crime series, it would be about a tough, female detective in a country run by women for women, more Jane Tennison in a socialist utopia than these losers. Maybe such an idea was itself a structuring influence: the Vares films went into production shortly after the broadcast of Rikospoliisi Maria Kallio, based on Leena Lehtolainen’s novels about just such a heroine. I can’t help but wonder if that’s part of Vares’ appeal for its readers and viewers. Somewhere in Finland there are unreconstructed men who miss the good old days of fags, booze and knee-tremblers behind the kebab shop. And they yearn for simpler times, when women knew their place, which was apparently either bed or a shallow grave.

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.