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Monday, September 25, 2023

Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Freestyle’ on Netflix, Where An Upstart Polish Rapper Plunges Headfirst Into A Formulaic Underworld Hustle  – Stars Obituary

In Freestyle (Netflix), directed by Maciej Bochniak and written by Bochniak and Slawomir Shuty, an aspiring rapper in Kraków runs himself into a heap of trouble when the seemingly straightforward drug deal that’s supposed to finance his music career instead becomes a knedle dumpling stuffed with double crosses, competing agendas, and increasingly frequent punches to the face. Freestyle is part of a raft of action-oriented Polish productions Netflix has committed to in 2023 – see also Mother’s Day and Soulcatcher – and it occasionally pops with some youthful vigor set to Polish-language hip-hop grooves. Then again, it also leans really, really heavily on crime thriller cliche.    


The Gist: As far as Diego (Maciej Musiałowski) is concerned, he’s already lived that crime life. He grew up the son of a gangster in Kraków, and once ran with a crew of low-level coke dudes. But he got clean in rehab, got his shit together enough to begin the makings of a music career – writing raps about disaffection and cussing out the cops alongside his flaky buddy Flour (Michaɫ Sikorski) – and Diego’s getting serious with an influencer named Miki (Nel Kaczmarek), even if she’s also seeing Baton (Filip Lipiecki), a hulking neck tat enthusiast from his old drug life. Yeah, this kid’s got big dreams, and even a little bit of a following, as we see during his set at an underground rap club operated by Flour’s sister Kira (Hanna Nobis). But making it happen in music will take a big bag of money, and that’s where dealing dope comes back into play. Via Flour, Diego meets Martin (Jakub Nosiadek), a shifty Slovakian drug pusher/entrepreneur who’s flashy, tacky, pushy, and unstable all at once. And that’s when a scheme is hatched to haul coke into Bratislava for a quick cash turnaround. Seems legit, right?

Thinking only of the returns, Diego secures a key of coke from Józef (Olek Krupa) and Jacek (Roman Gancarczyk), former associates of his father. “The Brothers” are not to be trifled with, but Diego still surreptitiously uses his own contacts from the old neighborhood to cut their coke into two keys. To no one’s surprise, this fly-by-night plan for an easy payday goes sideways in a huge hurry. The Slovakia deal is busted up by the cops, Flour gets grabbed, and now Diego’s on the run from The Brothers, who want double the payment for their product. Not only that, he’s being monitored by Baton, who in addition to being Miki’s jealous boyfriend and being basically high on coke 24/7 is also Józef and Jacek’s enforcer. What ensues is a wild ride into the Kraków night as Diego tries to placate his suppliers, pilfer a bit of cash for himself and Miki, and maybe still make it to the high-profile gig he booked at Kira’s club.

While Diego keeps Baton and the brute’s bosses at bay, he takes punishment from fists and blades, encounters numerous underworld figures, tries to deal with a wealthy sausage king high on his own financial aims, and sees a chance to escape the chaos with Miki glimmering in the dawn. But with stuff like this, it’s always the double-cross you don’t expect that T-bones your vehicle at the last possible second.       

Photo: Netflix

What Movies Will It Remind You Of? The New York City-based crime thrillers of directors Josh and Benny Safdie feel like the biggest touchstones here. Like Good Time and Uncut Gems, Freestyle envelopes its main character in a cascading glut of slim opportunities, plans gone really wrong, and pivots to desperation, with violent results and blood trails left in his wake.   

Performance Worth Watching: There are quite a few criminals to keep track of in Freestyle, but none of them are as interesting or memorable as Olek Krupa and Roman Gancarczyk as Józef and Jacek Brat. With only a few scenes to work with, the veteran actors quickly establish the brotherly dynamic of their characters and overlay that with an air of palpable menace. We could have used less left turns into different kinds of mayhem and more of these two as The Brothers.   

Memorable Dialogue: “This dork in Bratislava screwed up shit I guaranteed to important people,” Martin the Slovakian dealer tells Diego through his yellow-tinted shades. “If they can do a deal, he continues, “You make some dough, I survive, and we make big moves on rap.”

Sex and Skin: Nothing beyond a few scenes of intimacy between Miki and Diego.

Our Take: In Freestyle, the writing is visible on the wall the absolute second that our man Diego all too casually makes his agreement with the kingpin duo known as The Brothers. It’s all friendly when he visits their high-end car dealership/drug business HQ – everybody is sharing a meal, and they ask after Diego’s father. But the undercurrent is thick with danger, danger Diego is unwilling to heed. (Dollar signs might as well be rotating in his eyeballs.) “I assume nothing will happen,” Józef says. “But you’d better not screw it up.” Of course he’s gonna screw it up! Or at least his un-vetted clients will. And Diego’s assurances ring so hollow as to be heard echoing all the way into Slovakia. That sequence begins the escalation that Freestyle engages with, as everything that goes wrong begets another unexpected thing that also goes wildly wrong. And as Diego rides this underworld roller coaster ever higher through the nighttime streets of Kraków, it becomes difficult to invest in the film’s increasing bits of crazy. Side heists are introduced inside the main objective – suddenly Diego is conducting a confusing home invasion at the behest of the Brothers – and these moments detract from what the film does well, which is the interactions between its core set of characters. As Diego hustles new coke customers over the phone, he ignores a badgering Baton, whose girl trouble leads directly back to the guy he’s asking for advice; it’s a missed opportunity for a bit of black humor, dismissed in favor of more double-crosses and a few indulgences toward Diego’s hip-hop hopes and dreams.  

Our Call: STREAM IT, but don’t expect an edge-of-your-seat crime thriller. Freestyle features a handful of compelling characters and a few touches of style. But as Diego tries to resolve the mess he made, it seems to lose itself inside all of the additional drug deals and cross-purposes it piles on along the way.

Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges

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