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Every country has its mainstream and underground filmmakers; in Finland the most well-known and popular modern director of all might be Aleksi Mäkelä. Many of his films, mostly produced by Markus Selin of Solar Films, have achieved great popularity and often feature the most famous Finnish actors in lead roles. My own favourite of Mäkelä's work is probably The Tough Ones (1999), but his latest crime drama Rööperi is very watchable as well, an opinion shared by the common public (the film was the most watched domestic movie in its year of release).
The story is loosely based on a non-fiction book about the life of a former criminal Tom Sjöberg. At the beginning in 1966, Tomppa (Samuli Edelmann) and his friends Krisu and Kari (Peter Franzén and Kari Hietalahti) are getting fed up with the small scale of their illegal liquor selling business in Punavuori, Helsinki ("Rööperi" of the title). With hard fists and even harder attitudes they expand their territories and make more money, but are also aware that their criminal lifestyle can only have three different outcomes: going straight, prison or death. Tomppa is the most responsible of the bunch and opens a sex shop to earn a (somewhat) honest living for himself and his wife Monika (Pihla Viitala), while Kari cannot really get a grip on life after losing his mother. Krisu, in turn, becomes involved in drug trading with devastating consequences.
Markus Selin productions have always had an "international" feel to them, meaning that they have spent good money to make the films look professional and that the production values are decent. Rööperi is not an exception; the Helsinki of the 1960s and 70s looks very stylish, largely thanks to the experienced cinematographer Pini Hellstedt. Especially the streets in the menacing opening scene bask in beautiful green light and many of the shady interiors are handsomely shadowy. Certain camera angles and movements are also showier than in average Finnish movies, but luckily do not cross the border into annoying, distracting trickery.
The core of the film, the story, is fairly interesting too. The very spine of the plot is Tomppa's development from a street thug to an increasingly honest businessman despite personal tragedies and his feelings of responsibility regarding his wife and friends who just cannot see where their lives are heading at until it is already too late. Tomppa is very nicely portrayed by the charismatic singer-actor Samuli Edelmann, but Kari Hietalahti and Peter Franzén don't fall behind one bit in their roles of Kari and Krisu respectively – the latter's performance as the miserable junkie actually belongs among the best I have seen in any recent Finnish film. The supporting actors do good work as well, particularly Pekka Valkeejärvi as the brutal rivaling criminal Uki and Juha Veijonen as the fatherly police lieutenant Koistinen. The one exception would be the way too young-looking Jasper Pääkkönen in the role of the mobster Korppu: he makes without a doubt the least convincing gangster boss I have ever seen in any movie.
In spite of the mostly great acting and carefully created visuals, some things hold Rööperi back from being a really great film. For one thing, I feel the use of music is often too openly manipulative, even corny. The presumably exaggerated badassness of the antagonists Uki and Korppu does not always ring true and evokes feelings of style over substance at points, but on the other hand it is good that Finnish cinema is not always so afraid of stylization and flair. In any case, Tomppa's story is worth telling with or without flashiness and the movie never feels boring despite the 120+ minute runtime. The first time I saw it at the theater I didn't care for Rööperi much, but after a rewatch on DVD it started seeming a lot more dramatic and interesting than before. Perhaps a less tough, more low-key approach could have improved the movie, but I like it as it is now as well.
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