'Pusher' lacks soul
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
There is, to be sure, nothing new in "Pusher," Luis Prieto's remake of a 1996 film by "Drive" director Nicolas Winding Refn. But at least there's a lot of it, with plenty of fluorescent-lit spaces and cold neon lights as London drug dealer Frank (Richard Coyle) has a very bad week at work. Frank has a good life: days spent as best mates with the feral, rat-twitchy Tony (Bronson Webb) and nights of drink-lubricated and drug-fueled fun with his girlfriend, Flo (Agyness Deyn). Director Prieto has no small amount of what clearly looks like fun setting up Frank's work and world before Matthew Read's script curves toward the inevitable, as Frank over-leverages himself into a series of drug deals that put him in debt to the local underboss Milo (Zlatko Buric, reprising his work from Refn's 1996 original). It's the kind of debt involving such huge sums of money that Frank might as well just let them kill him, which they will try.
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And so the tempo and the debauchery and the violence kick up a notch with each turn of the screw on poor Frank's jangling nerves, as Frank calls in all debts and tries to get some money, any money, to throw at Milo and his henchman Hakan (Mem Ferda). There's a certain matter-of-fact propulsion behind the scenes -- Frank owes money -- and Coyle has both a face and demeanor that start out pretty good and are then improved by a little stubble-shaded exhaustion and a jawline set grimly against fate.
But all of the shooting and depravity and beatings and murders feel a little hollow. "Pusher" is trying to cash in on "Drive" -- insofar as you can do that, I guess -- by having Refn, who produces here, named on the poster. And compared to something like "Drive," "Pusher" looks like, well, what it is, namely a translated, cranked-up remake of a 16-year-old film made for far less money and to better effect.
There are things to admire in Prieto's direction, amid the noise and haste. Frank's nighttime trip to his urban hiding place is a brisk bit of visual storytelling showing a successful criminal at work. And cinematographer Simon Dennis does crisp, colorful work that brings to life the glowing, up-too-late world Frank lives in. There's also original music by Orbital, who you may remember from the soundtrack of every other movie like this you've already seen.
Coyle's work is undermined substantially by the fact we never have a clue who Frank is or what he wants, aside from money and drugs and the status that come with both. Model-actress Deyn's turn as Flo, a beautiful girl with a taste for ugly things, is striking, and Buric rants and raves agreeably as a mobster-monster with a tough policy on failure. Neil Maskell, excellent in "Kill List," gets a few nice moments as the customer who kicks all Frank's troubles off.
"Pusher" wants to be a wrenching and gripping tour of the shadow world of crime and drugs, but instead it feels like just another movie about crime and drugs as Frank's week goes from bad to worse. (It is an example of the kind of crime film that is hardly helped when you start to judge the protagonist. As Frank was being threatened or assaulted with words, hammers and guns, I kept thinking "Well, maybe you should have thought of consequences like that before you became a drug dealer.") "Pusher" has a slick sales patter and some catchy visual branding, but the product itself is a bright, brittle package of nothing.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.