A massive hit in its native Korea, “Believer” is a wild and boisterous crime drama that’s evenly split between romanticizing the back-and-forth between cops and robbers, and lamenting the pointlessness of that endless pursuit. Directed by Lee Hae-young, a rising talent whose distaste for half-measures was already on full display in his previous work (e.g. 2015’s “The Silenced”), the film espouses a violent commitment to both sides of that coin — the fun of the chase, and the hollow pain that someone feels when it finally catches up to them.
Much of this recklessly entertaining movie is so giddy with violence (and so many of its characters are cartoonish psychopaths) that it can be easy to forget the melancholy tone of the opening minutes, or the sadness that creeps into the margins after that. If Lee never quite convinces us of anything, it’s because he fails to put those two disparate modes into meaningful conversation with each other, even when people who represent different sides of the law are forced into direct confrontation, or to go undercover.
“I really want to live normally for once,” sighs a battered young informant before she’s thrown back into the fray, but nobody seems to hear the desperation in her voice. It’s only later — too much later, and well after the girl is murdered by the mysterious drug lord, Mr. Lee — that hard-assed narco detective Jo Won-ho (Cho Jin-wong) takes that message to heart. “She was like a niece to me,” he says to a fellow cop, admitting something that he couldn’t even confess to himself while the girl was still alive.
If that’s not enough to stoke Won-ho’s bloodlust for Mr. Lee (whose face and true identity are unknown to all), then a massive explosion at a Seoul drug lab sure does the trick. That chases the rats out of the ship and into the police station, starting with a ferocious lady (a biting cameo from Korean TV star Kim Sung-ryung) who drops dead in the station. More helpful is an expressionless young man named Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol) who looks like a K-Pop star and acts like a statue. A glorified intern who’s been doing grunt work for Mr. Lee ever since immigrating to Korea under difficult circumstances, Rak agrees to join forces with Won-ho and take down the villainous kingpin.
Discerning readers might recognize this as the plot of Johnnie To’s “Drug War,” although it’s just as likely they might not. While “Believer” follows the same basic trajectory of To’s frenzied genre treat, Lee takes a more cluttered and contemplative approach, resulting in a movie that feels more like a moody fraternal twin to the original than a direct clone. It’s damning, if not quite fatal, that Lee’s version works best when it’s riffing on the standout elements of the source material rather than trying to reinvent them.
Of course, it would be a fool’s errand to compete with the easy grace of To’s action scenes, or the fluidity of his plotting, and the hyper-convoluted opening 20 minutes of “Believer” feel like the work of a director who’s figuring that out the hard way — right before your eyes and in real-time. There’s enough bungled exposition here that it comes as a huge relief when Won-ho and Rak finally partner up and stage their first play, going undercover to meet with (and later impersonate) a demented Chinese-Korean gangster played by the late Kim Joo-hyuk.
The actors infuse this old set piece with electric new life, Lee focusing on their feral energy until we realize that the ridiculous plot isn’t nearly as important as the people who further it along. Johnnie To had great talent at his disposal, but Lee’s cast makes the material their own. Especially the supporting members. In a movie full of thieves, Jin Seo-yeon (playing a killer floozy who’s on some really strong coke) steals every scene she gets. Later, the two mute brothers from “Drug War” are replaced by a mixed-gender duo (Kim Dong-young and Lee Joo-young) who kickstart the movie just when it’s threatening to flatline.
“Believer” graciously invites all of these characters to participate in the more shoot-em-up heavy second half, and while Lee’s action chops won’t keep To awake at night, the director films the carnage with a casual volatility that puts the violence in most crime movies to shame. You can always track who’s trying to murder who, even when it’s not entirely clear why. The growing bodycount makes it that much harder to care, but the story is so hard to swallow that our disinterest almost works to its advantage by the end.
But Lee is too serious-minded to let things slide off the rails, no matter how much fun it would be to watch them derail. His script insistently bends things back towards some kind of emotional core, returning to an undertow that’s already been washed away by all the wacky carnage on the surface. “Have you ever been happy in your whole life?” the hunter finally asks his prey. It’s a fascinating question, but even at the end of “Believer,” it’s hard to put much stock in the answer.
“Believer” opens in theaters on June 8.