Like a sports car hot-wired and taken for a conspicuous spin, the exploits of a coke-slinging low-life get a flashy English-lingo facelift with “Pusher” — a case of “pimp my pic” that does little to boost what’s under the hood. Where 1996’s scrappy original put Danish helmer Nicolas Winding Refn on the map, inspiring two sequels and jump-starting a career that led to “Drive,” director Luis Prieto’s ultra-stylish remake looks the way the cult fave might if Refn were making the film today, electrified by slick cinematography and neon lighting. Pic should hook new fans on the franchise, especially in Blighty.
With Richard Coyle stepping in as the film’s eponymous drug dealer, “Pusher” tracks a hellish week — possibly the last — in the life of Frank, a handsome and charismatic small-time criminal who grows increasingly despicable as his desperation mounts. Frank unwisely borrows money from his supplier, Milo (Zlatko Buric), to finance what he naively believes to be a sure thing, but there are too many ways his plan can go wrong. When nearly all of them do, the situation leaves Frank scrambling to come up with the money, willing to betray everyone to save his own skin.
Little has changed from the original, which relocates the action from Copenhagen’s gritty underbelly to the streets o London, a gimmick attempted once before in an unofficial 2010 Hindi-language remake. This time, the endeavor has been sanctioned by Refn (an exec producer here), effectively cementing the franchise’s potential for further English-language installments; by contrast, Refn’s original sequels were essentially a bald ploy to get him out of debt, as documented in Phie Ambo’s behind-the-scenes “Gambler.”
If this new version of “Pusher” seems unusually streamlined for the frequently self-indulgent gangster-movie genre — methadone to the post-Guy Ritchie era of British crime capers, if you will — it’s because Matthew Read’s script owes much of its efficiency to Refn’s lean-and-mean prototype, co-written with Jens Dahl. The key difference: Prieto, a Spanish-born CalArts grad with four previous features under his belt, has greater resources and experience than Refn had when he made the original, amplifying the project’s potential as a showcase for a director eager to prove himself. If Refn made “Pusher,” then Prieto sets out to make “Pushest.”
As if playing homage to the filmmaker Refn would become, Prieto borrows a great deal from the director’s current filmmaking vibe — an ultracool ability to convey high-intensity action without breaking a sweat, hyper-controlling the image while bathing everything in retro-’80s synth music. But “Pusher’s” pusher is a different kind of protagonist than “Drive’s” Driver, and instead of developing greater empathy for Frank as the pic progresses, auds will likely disown this shallow SOB long before he beats up his best buddy (Bronson Webb), betrays his hooker g.f. (Agyness Deyn) and attempts to con his own mother (Joanna Hole).
Since fans of the original already know where Frank’s downward spiral is headed, “Pusher’s” best bet is with an all-new aud, perhaps those with an appetite for edgy entertainment, but no patience for subtitles. Regardless, it’s hard to fault Prieto for re-casting Buric, the same marvelous Croatian actor who played Milo in the Danish trilogy — a man so charming he slips into the realm of sinister, like Michael Gambon in “Layer Cake.”
What’s missing cast-wise is an appealing personality in the sidekick role, and Webb is no match for Mads Mikkelsen, providing dopey comic relief rather than a character compelling enough to support a possible “Pusher 2.”