In adapting Nicholas Winding Refn’s 1996 cult favorite Pusher, director Luis Prieto stays close to the original material. So close, in fact, that his English-language remake is essentially a scene-for-scene—sometimes line-for-line—transplanting of Refn’s story from the underworld of Copenhagen to its counterpart in London.
In terms of style and thematic substance, this Pusher is a by-the-numbers affair, pumped up on quick-cut adrenaline and gangster posturing. Preito has no distinct visual style—not a single shot or edit calls itself out—and his film lacks the sense of brooding, methodical predetermination that made the Refn picture so compelling. Yet, on balance, Prieto’s Pusher is a perfectly serviceable race-against-the-clock thriller thanks to a powerful lead performance from Richard Coyle.
Coyle plays Frank, a cocky drug peddler on London’s mean streets. At the outset, he’s doing pretty well for himself as a trusted, efficient cocaine trafficker on the Amsterdam-London circuit. He operates with his sidekick, Tony (Bronson Webb), and carries on a fling of sorts with Flo (Agyness Deyn), a sweet-tempered stripper (aren’t they all?) with a heroin habit.
Things go topsy-turvy when Frank gets an offer he can’t refuse—a huge payout from a big-time dope buyer. To get the dope, Frank goes to the local kingpin, Milo (the excellent Zlatko Buric, reprising the role he played in the Refn original), promising him a big cut of the score. But, as is so often the case in movie drug deals, Frank’s transaction with the buyer gets botched when the cops crash the party, the dope is destroyed, and Frank is hauled in.
Unable to pay Milo back in either cash or dope, Frank is in deep for an amount he can’t possibly raise in a few days’ time. Milo makes the consequences of not paying up pretty stark—in a rough torture scene, we see that this man does not bluff—so Frank goes on a desperate downward-spiral, scraping together cash wherever he can, eventually turning to armed robbery.
It’s during these travails that Frank begins to reassess his relationship with Flo, the one person in a hellish world who’s stuck by him, and Prieto—in one of his version’s few improvements over the original—gives viewers the sense that Frank is genuinely (if only temporarily) enamored of Flo. While the girlfriend character never made much of an impression in the original, Prieto and screenwriter Matthew Read are careful to flesh her out here. This allows her hopes and disappointments to be more keenly felt by the viewer.
Another shrewd improvement involves a client (Bill Thomas) who’s indebted to Frank, and who Frank aggressively goes after to recover his money. This client was a nondescript young man in the Refn version—someone we meet once and hardly care about. In Preito’s film, the client is a doddering old man, a grizzled and pathetic drug addict. He’s a far more pitiable and sympathetic character, and his fate is therefore that much more affecting and gut-wrenching.
Where this version stumbles badly, though, is in the characterization and casting of Frank’s sidekick, Tony. In the original, the brilliant Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen played this character as a tattooed, shaven-headed punk, someone you would not want to run into in an alley. Prieto and actor Webb, though, re-cast this character as the movie’s court jester—a ceaselessly irritating runt who doesn’t belong in the company of the much smarter Frank. Webb’s Tony is the Jar Jar Binks of Pusher, stranding his scenes in the realm of parody and cliché.
That brings us to Coyle. Cutting a lean, mean figure, he makes for a more magnetic screen presence than Kim Bodnia did in the original. Whereas Bodnia exuded a schlubby, almost thuggish vibe, Coyle presents Frank as a taut, watchful street fighter. And as the story descends into desperation, he is eminently convincing as a weary, paranoid victim of circumstance who badly needs a break. Thanks to Coyle’s charismatic interpretation of the role, viewers find themselves drawn to Frank—as compromised as he is. The world didn’t need this remake of Pusher—but Coyle helps justify its existence.
Director: Luis Prieto
Writer: Matthew Read
Starring: Richard Coyle, Bronson Webb, Agyness Deyn, Zlatko Buric, Daisy Lewis
Release Date: Oct. 26, 2012