Review originally published October 4, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Fantastic Fest.
How much better can any remake of a film be if it only becomes something more conventional in the process? “Pusher,” an update of “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 calling card, transforms that meandering character study of a drug dealer in over his head into a slicker, more familiar tale of London gangster woes in the vein of Guy Ritchie’s early work. It’s a bit livelier at turning the same screws, but does that necessarily make it an improvement?
Frank (now played by Richard Coyle) remains a man of relative principles in the dope game. If you only have ninety percent of the dough, he’ll only give you ninety percent of the gear. He doesn’t cheat, but he can get a bit greedy, and when the opportunity comes up for Frank to make a quick transaction with some new associates, he goes to old friend Milo (Zlatko Buric) -- to whom he’s already indebted -- and promises a 24-hour turnaround for his goods. “I’m like a boomerang,” he promises. “I come straight back.” However, when the cops break up the deal, Frank finds himself forced to ditch the drugs, leaving him to suck up his pride and call in every possible favor in order to pay Milo back within a week.
Naturally, everything about this version feels juiced up. Frank’s a bit more of a playboy who happens to be good at his chosen line of work until he realizes that being a relative professional among a bad crowd ultimately counts for little. Best pal Tony (Bronson Webb) is a more blatantly horny loud-mouth sidekick, while girlfriend Flo (Agyness Deyn) is all the more noble a stripper who wants out of this seedy life as soon as possible. (Unfortunately for Flo, Frank’s just as bad at keeping romantic promises with her as he is keeping monetary ones.)
Luis Prieto’s direction is suitably restless, in keeping with the story’s ticking clock and the film's reduced running time; this version loses 20 minutes to run a lean 90, and the pulsing techno soundtrack only makes it seem busier. While Refn’s camera liked to hover behind his protagonist as he went about his daily wares, Prieto prefers to keep his Frank trapped in tight frames, and given Coyle’s effectively clear-eyed panic throughout the film, who can blame the director for letting his lead’s baby blues do all the work? As the only returning cast member, Buric echoes his previous performance as Milo -- chummy and boisterous until crossed -- with the added, earned authority of an extra fifteen years since.
With every relationship more clearly established by Matthew Read’s take on the screenplay before things go inevitably south, the final twist of the knife here feels more emotionally justified. The preceding downward spiral, though, can’t help but feel almost typical in the wake of countless other gangster flicks. The first time around, “Pusher” showed audiences the unseen underbelly of Copenhagen and launched a trilogy of dramas. This time, “Pusher” is all about a one-time rush set in a familiar place; it does the trick, but it’s not quite the same sensation.
“Pusher” is currently available On Demand and opens in select cities on October 26th.