Luis Prieto’s remake of 'Pusher' is of interest because Nicolas Winding Refn's original offers such promising source material. But even with Refn's blessing, Prieto makes plenty of his own mistakes, delivering a stylish but perfunctory copy of his predecessor.
Richard Coyle ("Prince of Persia") plays Frank, a working-class drug dealer with a predictably unpredictable sidekick named Tony (Bronson Webb) and a sometime girlfriend named Flo (Agyness Deyn). When Tony reintroduces him to an old prison buddy who offers to pay handsomely for a kilo of cocaine if he can deliver it quickly, Frank is distracted by the promise of a payday. But after the cops interrupt their transaction, leaving him with neither the drugs nor the money, Frank finds himself in hot water with his supplier Milo (Zlatko Buric), who demands that he repay a $50k debt within the next two days.
The biggest problem with Prieto’s interpretation (not reinterpretation) of Refn’s story is not that it’s almost identical. It’s that Prieto ladles on visual flourishes that are meant to suggest character details, while ignoring the stylistic hallmarks of Refn’s film that actually did. In the original, Frank returns from police custody to exact revenge on the guy who gave him up to the cops; where Refn used one continuous take to demonstrate the character’s hidden rage, Prieto shoots the same sequence in a flashy strip club, overshadowing Frank’s betrayal and outrage with a montage of canted angles and bright colors.
As the main character, Cole is too collected and sedate to communicate Frank’s increasing desperation, much less draw the audience’s sympathy with his pathetic delusional pride. In Refn’s film, Frank was a piece of shit from the opening scene, but there was something vaguely compelling about how he was smart enough to know the right move, but would make the wrong one anyway. Here, Frank seems propelled by the forces of the screenplay rather than the design of his twisted sense of self-worth, and as a result his spiral into self-destruction seems more predictable than inevitable.
Prieto’s camera lingers on and returns to montages of Frank’s inner indecision – how he feels about what he’s doing at a given moment – but the filmmaker mistakes these interstitial sequences for depth or emotional substance. A second-act robbery is interrupted by a quickly-cut sequence of Frank’s reactions – laughter, terror, paranoia – but by this time in the story, those feelings should have been established purely by what he’s being dealt.Additionally, Prieto’s decision to adopt Refn’s seven-day structure (title cards read “Monday,” etc.) undermines key moments of drama, and in at least two cases suggests that the film is just not willing to engage the fallout of choices that actually do speak to the characters’ personalities. Does it seem possible that guys looking for someone who owes them money wouldn’t look at his girlfriend’s apartment, especially after he escapes a confrontation with them at gunpoint? That the movie doesn’t address this either immediately or as a larger component of its world-building speaks to the focus of everyone involved – namely, on the look of that world, and how simply to bring it to life in the most superficial way possible.
That said, the same character details that existed in Refn’s original script help to distinguish several of the performances in this film. After playing Milo in the ’96 "Pusher," Buric is palpably comfortable as the drug supplier who makes the mistake of befriending his “employee” Frank, and he provides alternate measures of gregariousness and menace. As Milo’s enforcer Hakan, Mem Ferda has a surprising amount of humanity and tenderness, offering words of comfort to Frank even as he knows he may have to do terrible things later – to Frank even – to get the money owed to Milo.
Finally, Orbital follows the lead of electronic groups like Daft Punk, the Chemical Brothers and Basement Jaxx and provides a suitably energetic score for Prieto’s film, although by comparison, their compositions feel more like uptempo source cues than a cohesive musical backdrop for the story. But then again, that’s sort of a perfect metaphor for the entire film – a handful of good or even great ideas that never quite come together in a meaningful or purposeful way. Although Refn’s success is attracting attention to this movie, remember that his debut was a promise not fully delivered on for several more films. For Prieto’s sake, let’s hope the same thing is true with this "Pusher" as well.