Vague Visages’ Copenhagen Cowboy review contains minor spoilers. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Netflix series stars Angela Bundalovic, Li Ii Zhang and Andreas Lykke Jørgensen. Check out the VV home page for more TV reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Another year, another Nicolas Winding Refn CST (Certified Sex Therapist) session. Lie back on the couch and contemplate the Danish filmmaker’s latest creation, Copenhagen Cowboy. Set in a seedy neon-lit underworld, the Netflix series follows Miu (Angela Bundalovic), a spiritual, ominous being on a quest for identity, dignity and revenge. She evolves from a virtually silent sex slave/oracle into an interactive, formidable force, with assistance from criminal supporters Mother Hulda (Li Ii Zhang) and Chiang (Jason Hendil-Forssell). In the latter half of Copenhagen Cowboy, Miu demonstrates her might as a certified Kill Bill-like drug dealer assassin. Think of her as a dime-store version of Uma Thurman’s Black Mamba wearing a cobalt blue athletic suit. Miu assists her handler, Danny (Ebriama Jaiteh), in his quest for a seat at the table in the larger forum that is the Russian mafia, headed by the main protagonist’s surrogate father figure, Miroslav, played by the revered Danish actor Zlatko Burić. Opposition to these goals comes in the form of rival criminal alliances, including an Albanian sex trafficking operation headed by the brother and sister duo of Rosella (Dragana Milutinovic) and Andre (Ramadan Huseini), along with the latter character’s jezebel daughter, Flora (Dafina Zeqiri). The worst of the criminal foes are the licentious and blood lusting Nicklas (Andreas Lykke Jørgensen) and his viciously impure sister, Rakel (portrayed by Refn’s daughter, Lola Corfixen). The stakes couldn’t be any higher, for as cryptically stated by Danny, “there’s a war on, and it’s time to choose a side.” Unfortunately, Refn’s clunky execution and unfilled vision quell viewer interest, almost to an absolute null. Despite the meticulous artistic and cinematic charm that the director exudes, Copenhagen Cowboy is not Don Johnson’s white Ferrari Daytona Spyder 365 GTS/4, but a lemon Ford Pinto. The Danish emperor of cool has lost his clothes.
From the onset, it is apparent that Copenhagen Cowboy lacks the unique idiosyncratic vision of The Neon Demon (2016). Refn leaves behind the spontaneity and narrative structure that appears throughout Too Old to Die Young (2019). The execution of Copenhagen Cowboy is dull, primarily due to dragged-out, eye-cringing exposition and cookie-cutter cinematography which render it similar to a Jerry Bruckheimer production. What happened to the young man with fresh and exciting ideas who was told by the legendary Elia Kazan to do it “YOUR WAY”? Refn’s way has become predictable, as he regurgitates the same themes in a manner that goes beyond machoism, mystery and dark humor to borderline repulsion. The obsession of Nicklas’ father, Michael (Thomas Algren), with pricks starts as sophomoric humor in Copenhagen Cowboy and becomes obnoxious and repetitive. Allegedly, this character’s prick is an artistic and cultural asset, but the script writing of Copenhagen Cowboy is definitely not.
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Hendil-Forssell should receive a Golden Raspberry Award for appearing out of thin air as Chiang and declaring the following to the love of his life: “You didn’t just heal my heart… but both our hearts… you connected us… we love each other.” By comparison, all the aforementioned Kazan needed to convince viewers of the complicated relationship between Stella and Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is the bold proclamation of “Stella!” and the dominant motions of the female body; a simple economic statement delivered by both words and subtle visuals. No pretentious hijinks. There is an overall lack of pathos in all of Copenhagen Cowboy’s characters. And worst of all, none of this is in service to Miu’s arc.
Miu is a puzzle. Perhaps Douglas Hofstadter’s MIU system inspired the often cold and robotically calculating personality that Refn and Bundalovic conjured up. Due to the protagonist’s alleged spiritual origins, one could surmise that she is pure, beyond our realm of understanding, and doesn’t need pathos. Yet previous Refn characters have more going on than just looking ominously into the camera, including Ryan Gosling’s titular demi-God in Drive (2011) and the vengeful deity Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) in Only God Forgives (2013). Miu isn’t a true noir character, as she has no Achilles heel. Her sense of urgency waxes and wanes. The introduction of various characters and story elements seem to be the result of Refn throwing ideas to the wall and filming that ones that stick.
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The aesthetics of Copenhagen Cowboy are its most redeeming value. Since Drive, Refn has unabashedly embraced new wave music, and his latest project is no exception. Each episode’s introduction bears a likeness to a CHANEL N°5 commercial. Episode five of Copenhagen Cowboy is the major standout. The usage of automatic hand pistols, gun barrels and thrilling grunge music emits the feeling of the Kurt Cobain/Trent Razor James Bond duet that we were denied back in ’94. It is an awesome wave of controlled chaos. The bordello attire that the Albanian “women of the night” don serves as flirtatious cocktail eye candy. The large silver necklaces, hanging from each neck, depict the sophistication of Grace Kelly accompanied by the tough-as-nails attitude of Michelle Pfeiffer. With the character Rakel, who wears the fineries of a Victorian-era countess, Refn presents an elegance from a bygone era. Rakel and Nicklas’ castle is a gothic dream come true, evoking a macabre style a la Norma Ames’ Whisper in the Forest (1971). The piece de resistance arrives in the final episode when Chiang’s kickboxing skills face the ultimate test. Refn’s laser light show rises to the level of Tekken on steroids and is on par with the best fight sequences found in Only God Forgives. If only the rest of Copenhagen Cowboy could live up to this standard.
In a 2019 conversation with Collider, Refn stated that his primary objective for Too Old to Die Young was to create a streaming show that had the best attributes of both novels and movies; a product that looks sharp but is still viewable in any order with an easily accessible story. I would argue that despite Too Old to Die Young’s many faults, Refn did partially succeed in this regard. By comparison, Copenhagen Cowboy does not come close. The show’s characters are beyond flat. The best method actors of the bunch, Burić and Ebriama Jaiteh, do not get enough screen time. The latter performer’s final screen moments are a massive cop-out. The plot, irregular pacing and awful dialogue remind of a canceled video game by the out-of-control Japanese designers Goichi Suda and Hideo Kojima.
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A bunch of well-proven cliches can go down smoothly like a strawberry shake, leading to self-examination and prompting strides for a better tomorrow. Copenhagen Cowboy, however, proves that a rushed product and pretentious dialogue creates a migraine. My plea is the following: will the real Nicolas Winding Refn please stand up?
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.
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