Director Nicolas Winding Refn has changed immeasurably since Pusher, his 1996 breakthrough. Comparing this early drug saga—which charts a mid-level dealer en route to being royally fucked—to last year’s Drive tells you everything: Whiplash camerawork has made way for lush elegance; hyper-realism has been replaced by gleeful artificiality. The new British Pusher remake is slightly more in step stylistically with the new Winding Refn. The camera moves but without the herky-jerkiness of ’96 NWR, while the glut of ‘80s-style synth pop suggests director Luis Pietro has been checking out his predecessor’s iTunes wares.
These superficial differences aside, the new Pusher is essentially the old Pusher, only less lacking in whatever vitality it once had. The Danish setting was a good novelty, whereas London has a deep history of gangland tales. The original also had a genuine weariness, which not only reflected its doomed anti-hero, but the director’s awareness of the genre he was exploiting while quietly subverting. Something similar is at work in Pietro’s version: This is a post-Guy Ritchie English crime picture, and it’s the perfect time for an entry where the protagonist isn’t a bad-ass, but just some guy trying to not get inventively murdered.
The plot finds Frank (Richard Coyle) massively in debt to a drug lord, played by bloated, oily Zlatko Buric, reprising his role from the original. Raising the cash proves hairy, as all the contacts Frank has prove unreliable fuckups. Coyle is best known for Coupling, a show he left before the final series so as not to become typecast as a horndog freak. He’s less vulnerable than the original’s Kim Bodnia, but he’s reliably strung-out as he races to collect debts of his own and, when that proves worthless, adopt more reckless strategies. Pietro keeps things grounded à la the original; he rarely stoops to showing off, and the camera gets in the actors’ faces during tense stand-offs. Whatever the point of its existence is beyond me, except to award Winding Refn (who executive produced) more money to make his new, superior films, which is a noble endeavor. Otherwise, it’s chiefly for people who would watch the original if only it didn’t have subtitles or wasn’t, like, old.