Danish cop thriller ‘Shorta’ attempts some interesting relevance within its familiar set-up, by plunging the good-cop/bad-cop buddy structure into the simmering racial tensions of a suburb beset by crime.
As an opening intertitle explains, ‘Shorta’ is Arabic slang for cop, and this foretells the collision of cultures that kick-starts the film’s conflicts. The fictional ghetto of Svalegården is the setting, a deprived area away from the city centre where immigration rates are high, and police and residents are mutually held under the grip of suspicion.
After we’re given a tough glimpse of police brutality, protagonists Mike (Jacob Lohmann) and Jens (Simon Sears) are introduced. The characters are well sketched out: the latter has a wedding ring that he always takes off before shifts, while the other dons an auspicious pair of shades. In time-honoured fashion, Jens is a young rookie who’s yet to have a “fuck-up” at work, unhappily paired on a neighbourhood patrol with unapologetic and monstrous Mike.
As hinted in the prologue, Mike is one of a number of cops tied up in the beating and injuring of teenager Talib Ben Hassi (Jack Pedersen) in custody, whose death is announced while the pair are on duty. It just happens to be that their patrol has taken them close to this boy’s home when the inevitable riots break out, and gradually the pair become trapped within a threateningly brutalist environment.
Nothing here is ground-breaking. Beyond the set-up, it is fair to say that the narrative’s insistence on upending the world-views of both Jens and Mike is predictable. However, the police genre is one reliant on common tropes, and the filmmakers, Anders Ølholm and Frederik Louis Hviid, have stated that their goal was more to “understand the “why” behind people’s actions”. These are grandiose terms for what appears, on the surface, to be a rather rote action romp, but it nonetheless succeeds on some level to fulfil this purpose.
In separating them from the wider world—isolated in their police car, which soon becomes tarnished with “fuck cops” graffiti—Jens and Mike become pariahs for an already problematic cause. The neighbourhood, seemingly alone in being somewhere that threatens their authority, is a moral vacuum where the opposed approaches they hold become irrelevant, invisible beneath the barrier of a uniform. It is not the bystanders put at risk by a snap visual judgement, but the officers themselves.
Taking this stance is certainly brave given the current climate, especially as it takes a while for any possibility of an undercutting of either police officer’s point of view. But it finally clicks: in taking the side of these two, the idea of the whole rotten applecart overcoming the ‘few bad apples’ rhetoric becomes even more toxically relevant. Again, these are not new ideas, but Shorta’s approach to much of the action puts it across in a rather distinctive form.
On the other side, it is arguable that the lack of nuance becomes a problem in the characters of the ghetto’s youth population. Jens takes charge of a kid, Amos (Tarek Zayat), whom Mike has attempted to arrest on shaky ground, and naturally Amos’ knowledge of the area allows him to help out, in contrast to the violent thugs he lives alongside. An attempt to dig into these power structures—the younger kids doing patrol tasks to gain experience, in the hope of rising to the rank of “Big Brothers”—never really comes off, and it is clear that this is not the heart of the film.
But as Shorta unspools, the story zips along with a nice amount of tension provided by the nicely spaced action sequences. The film is loaded with explosions of contemporary urban violence that recall the recent break-out French hit Les Miserables. In terms of influences, the directors do cite a range of (often American) directors, from William Friedkin to Spike Lee, but without reading that it would be hard to pick these out directly. Save for a couple of De Palma-esque split diopters and a vertical pan that flips the landscape upside down à la Midsommar, the visual style remains rather discreet throughout.
For what could have been, from its set-up, an uneasy watch, Shorta succeeds in being a satisfying and suspenseful drama. Neither the amorality of its insider perspective, nor the spectacle of its set-pieces get in the way of Shorta undermining the wider police system—and though it doesn’t necessarily teach anything new, this is refreshing in such a generic piece.
Words by Max King
‘Shorta’ is released in cinemas and digital 3rd September.
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