There’s a breath-catching echo about the opening sequence of Shorta (known as Enforcement in other parts of the world). A young man in police detention is pinned to the floor, gasping “I can’t breathe.” Chilling words now engraved in history and ones that send expectations sky-high for what could be a shocking yet thought-provoking examination of racism, law enforcement, and a myriad of other social issues.
A big ask, then, for Danish debut feature directors Frederik Louis Hviid and Anders Olholm. But expectations and reality don’t coincide. Instead, they adopt a more conventional approach to their thriller, which is seen through the eyes of two Danish cops caught in the middle of the fallout from those opening moments when excessive force puts 19-year-old Talib Ben Hassi in intensive care. One of them, recently arrived Jens Hoyer (Simon Sears), witnessed the incident but did nothing to stop it, prompting his colleagues to speculate what he’ll have to say to Internal Affairs. With all police patrols out on the streets during the escalating riots, he’s teamed with jaded, racist Mike Andersen (Jacob Lohmann) whose pointless and humiliating search of teenager Amos (Tarek Zayat) escalates the situation, so that all three are running for their lives.
It’s a familiar scenario for anybody who’s seen 2019’s Les Miserables or, going further back, La Haine (1995), so the bar is set extremely high. The transformation of the housing estate into a war zone, a soulless rabbit warren of tunnels, looted shops, and faceless balconies, lit up by burning cars and blinding torchlight keeps the tension simmering until it eventually reaches boiling point. It’s helped by Jacob Moller’s striking cinematography – frantic and handheld for the chase sequences and creating some startling images that speak volumes. The three central performances are all strong, with Lohmann especially compelling as the cop who’s hardest to like but commands the lion’s share of screen time.
Hviid and Olholm also have a taste for the unexpected, toying with their audience’s anticipation that the story will go in one particular direction, and then taking them down another. But, while this keeps the action charging along, what it doesn’t do is give the film a chance to concentrate on the issues behind the action, so when the film dips a toe into social issues, that’s all it does: it never goes any deeper and there’s a frustrating sense of superficiality. The opportunities are there, but the writing/directing duo seems more interested in making an actioner and this can only be the reason for their exploration of Andersen’s personal journey being equally sketchy.
As a thriller pure and simple, Shorta has moments of sweat-inducing, pulsating energy to go with the escalating tension and it’s impressive on that level. But those early expectations simply aren’t satisfied as the moral and social questions don’t get the exploration they deserve and are replaced by another chase, another volley of bullets, or another car crash. It could have been so much more.
Thriller, Crime | Cert: 15 | Cinema and digital, 3 September 2021 | Vertigo Releasing | Dirs. Frederik Louis Hviid, Anders Olholm | Simon Sears, Jacob Lohmann, Tarek Zayat, Ozlem Saglanmak.