Vulnerability isn’t a word often associated with a Mads Mikkelsen performance. His two most famous roles — Hannibal Lecter in NBC’s short-lived Hannibal procedural and the Bond baddie Le Chiffre in 2006’s Casino Royale — are charismatic sharks driven purely by ego. Even in last year’s Riders of Justice, where Mads played a military hardass out for revenge, the tender cracks that form in his stoic exterior are played as revelatory moments for the character. 

Yet the most overlooked performance of Mikkelsen’s career — as the low-level criminal Tonny in Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands — goes far beyond vulnerability with a character who can really only be described as pathetic. The second film in Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy is a self-contained story of a loser who simply cannot stop losing. Tonny is a friendless, unloved screw-up who can’t even fall into the good graces of his scuzzy criminal father (who runs a mid-level car theft and drug-pushing operation) or his pregnant ex-girlfriend; she claims Tonny is the father of her child, but given her atrocious behavior throughout the movie, she could just as easily be trying to scam child support money from the biggest sucker with whom she’s ever slept.

Tonny is a supporting character in the first Pusher film, last seen as the recipient of a baseball bat to the skull during a drug deal gone wrong. It’s a stroke of brilliance in both Refn’s script and Mikkelsen’s performance that when we reunite with Tonny in the sequel, freshly paroled from prison, he’s no longer the arrogant, motor-mouthed lowlife we knew from the first movie. Now, he’s more soft-spoken and child-like, and a jagged scar across his shaved head (adorned with a tattoo of the word RESPECT in a touch of poetic irony) suggests this personality shift is the result of some serious bat-related brain damage. 

Narratively, Pusher II is more or less identical to the other installments — a series of sequences in which our degenerate protagonists dig themselves deeper and deeper into a hole of their own making — but it’s Mikkelsen’s performance that makes him the most sympathetic lead of the trilogy.  Yes, Tonny is an absolute scumbag, someone who any reasonable person would avoid being in the same room as at all costs. The problem is that Tonny isn’t even a competent scumbag. The other reprehensible dirtbags in his life see right through his empty bravado. A post-prison reunion at the beginning of the film between him and his father, Smeden, gives viewers a crash course on all of Tonny’s foibles. With a huge prison debt hanging over his head, Tonny walks up to his father’s warehouse hoping to get a job. Before he can even get a word out, Smeden — with his perpetual disgusted sneer on his face – asks, “How much do you owe?” “Well, I always owe a little. But you know I’m on top of it,” Tonny replies, chuckling and casually waving his hand away. Smeden’s pure contempt for his son never wavers, however, and for as horrible a person Smeden clearly is, once we see how terribly Tonny handles even the most meager responsibilities his father sends his way, we can’t completely blame him for not trusting his own son. 

And sure enough, Tonny is seemingly incapable of doing a single thing right. Mikkelsen plays him as impotent … in every sense of the word. One sequence finds him at a brothel, completely nude, trying to “ready” himself to no avail in front of two prostitutes. Calling them every foul name under the sun, he eventually gives up and blames their “ugly” looks for his no-show performance. This is the kind of male performance completely devoid of ego, one that could best be compared to Harvey Keitel’s unforgettable turn in Bad Lieutenant. And no, that comparison isn’t just because of the deliberately unsexy, full-frontal nudity each actor displays. Rather, it’s the willingness each one has to debase themselves to portray their characters as honestly as possible. Tonny’s childish frustration here has just as much to do with his sexual performance as it does with his inability to pass as anything resembling a decent man. 

Watching scene after scene of a character ruining their own life could indeed grow repetitive, if not outright depressing, yet Mikkelsen’s magnetism makes it all enthralling. This is the kind of downward-spiral thriller like Uncut Gems that could fall apart completely without a charismatic performer holding it together. And neither Mikkelsen’s performance nor the character is one-note. As Tonny repeatedly fails to make something of himself, and the people in his life continue to step on him, we the audience realize that some kind of retribution is on its way. In the movie’s haunting final shot, it’s up to us to decide whether that retribution is ultimately coming for Tonny, his father or both of them.