★★★☆☆

Open a film with a close-up of a young black man screaming “I can’t breathe,” his neck under the knee of a policeman, and you better back it up with a social critique worthy and respectful of as shocking an image and incendiary a subject matter.

Anders Ølholm and Frederik Louis Hviid’s Shorta (to be titled Enforcement for its international release) is a striking, muscular police thriller. Not straying far enough away from convention to make any new or penetrating comment on institutionalised racism, it is an engaging genre film which offers only a superficial look beneath the tough ghetto environment it depicts. Told from the perspective of two Copenhagen policemen, there’s no doubt at all as to the excessive force used by the officers responsible for 19-year-old Talib Ben Hassi’s critical condition.

Young, idealistic and ready to make a difference, Høyer (Simon Sears) was present at the violent arrest, but did nothing to prevent its devastating consequences. Will he speak out to an Internal Affairs investigation, or close ranks with his colleagues to cover up the truth? It’s a conundrum as old as Serpico and beyond. But before testimony can be given, an incident when on patrol with new partner, Andersen (Jacob Lohmann), sends car Romeo 14-05 on a collision course with disaster.

The latter officer – experienced, jaded, racist – has no call to halt Amos (Tarek Zayat), rifle through his rucksack and humiliate him in such a sadistic manner, but the unnecessary act has unforeseen consequences. When further news from the hospital where Talib is being treated comes through over the radio, Høyer and Andersen have far greater concerns than their car being tagged or pelted with milkshakes. Trapped inside Svalegarden – where riots soon turn the sprawling estate into a combat zone, and abandoned by a dispatch unable to send in any further help, they’re on their own.

Doubling down on the wrongful stop and search, Andersen drags Amos along as their guide out of the labyrinthine tower blocks. Punctuated by well-choreographed fisticuffs and intense set pieces, Shorta – a term for ‘police’ in Arabic an early intertitle informs – plays out over the course of one night where hunters become hunted, preyed upon by gangs vying for revenge. The three central performances are strong, and with the tables turned, Ølholm and Hviid make great use of the urban rabbit warren environment. Underpasses, looted shops, high-rise balconies and barren construction sites are menacingly lit by flares, gunfire and burning cars.

One particular confrontation splits the police colleagues, and Andersen benefits from the kindly, skilled actions of an unexpected ally. But in each instance of a potentially profound questioning of moral stance – in either of the policemen and thus the film itself – or suggestion that we explore another level of social consciousness, the twisting, turning plot draws us back into the fray of bullets, Molotovs and one terrifying dog.

Trouble lurks around every corner, and the narrative does keep us guessing, but this limits any sincere indictment of the apparently irresolvable us-and-them conflict. An arresting, often edge-of-your-seat action film, then, but not the enduring La Haine-inspired inspection of societal ills that it could have been.

The 2021 Glasgow Film Festival takes place between the 24 February to 7 March. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63