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► Shorta is in UK cinemas and on digital platforms from 3 September.
Arriving in a moment when racialised police brutality has crested as a global talking point – and conspicuously marking its timeliness via an opening line that quotes Eric Garner’s choking, dying words (“I can’t breathe”) – the Danish thriller Shorta takes off from the premise that all cops are bastards. The question is which member of its central pair is more inglorious than the other.
Clocking in on the mean streets of Copenhagen in the wake of a much-publicised debacle in which a Muslim teenager was abused in custody by an overzealous fellow officer, brusque, tattooed Mike Andersen (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann) and taciturn, unblemished Jens Høyer (Simon Sears) feel even more unwelcome than usual. Mike’s seemingly pathological need to provoke every POC in the vicinity feels rooted in guilty defiance of that free-floating contempt; dropping in on the Arab owner of a local boxing gym, he starts in on the heavy bag, as if warming up for some impending bout. It’s Jens’s job to keep an eye on his voluble partner and try to rein him in, but Anders Ølholm and Frederik Louis Hviid’s film scrutinises both men with the same watchful, dread-tinged camera movements, eschewing genre-movie identification for a more observational gaze.
In plot terms, Shorta (the title is a disparaging Arabic slang word for ‘police’) gradually takes the form of a siege film, with Jens and Mike stranded in the middle of protests inflamed by news of the aforementioned youth’s death. That they’re driving around in their cruiser with dubious custody of another Arab boy, Amos (Tarek Zayat) – who Mike strip-searches and subsequently handcuffs without cause or evidence beyond his own prejudice – only enlarges the target on their backs.
As things shift swiftly into action-movie mode, the filmmakers maintain a convincing pretence of sociological observation, dotting the background with scenes of civilians recording our antiheroes’ actions (lawful and otherwise) on cellphones and emphasising various modes and methods of individual and state surveillance. And when tensions boil over and the protests break out into full-scale riots, we’re offered a convincing vision of chaos shot through with catharsis, as if what’s happening is not only inevitable but, in its way, equitable, a rush of collective rage to offset a ledger of police-sanctioned micro-aggressions ticking off towards infinity.
As Mike, Lohmann has the showier role, and it’s impossible not to think of Denzel Washington’s swaggering villainy in Training Day (2001) as a possible template, though performance-wise the actor is actually closer to Mel Gibson’s sterling (and unsettling) work in S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete (2018) – a movie that dared (or at least trolled its way) towards the idea that cops making omelettes by breaking a few bad eggs deserve a measure of sympathy. Ølholm and Hviid aren’t as florid or flamboyant as Zahler – and Lohmann doesn’t have Gibson’s movie-star aura – but the coiled tension of his acting, as a man who’s successfully armoured himself against the benefit of the doubt (for anyone, his partner included), is powerful. Sears, meanwhile, has a trickier part as the ostensibly ‘good’ cop, and he finds the precise physical and gestural language to signify the character’s passivity and weakness – and to activate the script’s subtext about whether acting wrongly is necessarily that much worse than not acting at all.
Such tidy dialectics make for easy critical deconstruction. They can also grow tiresome, especially when so slickly packaged by up-and-comers with an eye on Hollywood. Not only are Shorta’s reference points seemingly mostly American (in addition to Training Day and the 2002 film Dark Blue, a number of reviews have name-checked John Carpenter and Assault on Precinct 13), but so too, it would seem, are its makers’ aspirations. The message is more universal than that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and the aesthetics are similarly transnational, perhaps to a fault. It might seem unfair for a movie as skilful and effective as Shorta to be designated – or reduced to – a calling card, but if Ølholm and Hviid do manage to hop on the studio gravy train, it’s a designation that in hindsight will fit like a glove.