The strangest thing about Pusher, the English-language remake of the cult ’90s Danish film, is that it looks more like a Nicolas Winding Refn movie than the original did – curious, given the fact that Refn directed the original, and not this one. Refn’s film, the first in a trilogy, kicked off a career that has steadily grown and which reached a new level with last year’s excellent Drive. It followed a week in the life of a Copenhagen-based drug dealer who suddenly finds himself in heavy debt to his supplier after a deal goes wrong.
The remake transports the material to London, and in so doing leaves behind the grittiness sometimes associated with Danish cinema and replaces it with the British equivalent. If that sounds worryingly like the darkness of the original has been replaced by Guy Ritchie-style cops-and-gangsters, worry not; this is closer in spirit to Layer Cake or the underrated Gangster No. 1. The music, by Orbital, and the camerawork evoke Refn’s later work, and the combination of influences works surprisingly well.
This should not, however, undermine the work of this film’s director, Spanish filmmaker Luis Prieto. It is perhaps this multicultural mix that makes the film feel both inherently British and yet infused with a more European stylistic boldness; the detachment and restraint of the central character evoke both British crime cinema and Jean-Pierre Melville. The term ‘English-language remake’ is a red rag to movie geeks everywhere, and given the cynicism behind most of those films that is understandable. But here is a film that does not cancel out the original, nor vice versa.
The protagonist, Frank, is played effectively by Richard Coyle; no matter how good the filmmakers are if he had been miscast it would have fallen apart, and it’s a testament to his performance that the whole thing holds together so well; while it may not feel shatteringly original (obviously, being a remake, it isn’t) it creates its own rhythm and it all feels of a piece. Coyle is joined by Bronson Webb as Tony, his young assistant and protégé. Webb is only slightly younger than Mads Mikkelsen was when he played his role in the original, but this time their relationship is markedly different, with Frank taking a more paternal role.
The film is a tightly-structured glimpse into the life of a man who lives on the edge, and is about to fall off. There’s a building, palpable tension as his desperation increases. He calls on every client he can think of who owes him money and tightens the screws. Although hardly a role model at the start, by the end he’s breaking even his own limited moral code to survive; if the movie is about something, it might be the way that, under the right pressure, principles can be the first thing to go.
The role of Milo, the supplier, is played in both this and the Danish original by Croatian actor Zlatko Buric; surprisingly, his performance is if anything even more memorable here. He is ostensibly closer to Frank, and therefore harder to read. At any moment his warmth can be shed and replaced with coldness and brutality. He is not a man you would like to owe money to. The casting throughout is strong and well chosen: the strikingly beautiful Agyness Deyn brings life to a potentially stale role (a stripper and escort and sort-of girlfriend to Frank), and makes her distinctive and memorable; you only wish the movie could find more for her to do.
Refn, who gets a producer credit, is as surely one of the auteurs of this movie as Prieto is; not just for his original material, but for the influence his style seems to have over the movie (the editing also has a touch of Darren Aronofsky, and there’s a direct Requiem For A Dream reference). The original film had a greater impact because it had an earthier, more realist quality. This is an altogether slicker movie, more stylistically accomplished and perhaps a little more empty. Perhaps the plot is broad enough that it all comes down to the method, and whether you’ve seen the original or not this is a well made, suspenseful and perversely entertaining movie.
Pusher is released in the UK on 12 October.