Johnnie To’s gritty mainland crime epic “Drug War” (2012) is given a slick and mostly effective South Korean re-tooling in “Believer.” Centered on a dogged cop obsessed with flushing out a mysterious drug kingpin, this pacy outing is loaded with colorful characters but fails to deliver the emotional intensity it promises. The first feature by director and co-writer Lee Hae-young since his classy period thriller “The Silenced” (2015), “Believer” has notched two million admissions since its May 22 local release. An entertaining action-thriller accessible for non-Korean viewers, “Believer” ought to perform well when it opens June 8 on 23 North American screens.
Action-packed but free of the extreme brutality that sometimes hinders the commercial prospects of Korean genre films in offshore markets, “Believer” borrows just the basics of To’s film. While faithfully recreating some of the original’s most famous sequences, Lee and female co-writer Chung Seo-kyung (“Thirst,” 2009) have significantly altered plot and character details elsewhere. One of the major talking points is the remake’s low-key denouement, which departs radically from To’s all-guns-blazing finale.
Always reliable playing cops or crooks, Cho Jin-woong (“A Hard Day,” 2014) cuts the right figure as Jo Won-ho, a hard-bitten narco squad detective on the trail of Mr. Lee, a drug lord whom it seems no one has ever laid eyes on. After two fruitless years on the case, the situation hits rock bottom when a troubled teenage informant, Soo-jung (Keum Sae-rok), is murdered by Mr. Lee’s henchmen. The detective’s remorse over Soo-jung’s death — “she was like a niece to me,” he says — provides a strong emotional thread in the film’s early sections, but is largely forgotten thereafter.
Things heat up nicely when an explosion at a Seoul drug lab wipes out most of the bigwigs in Mr. Lee’s cartel. Narrowly surviving the blast is Oh Yeon-ok (Kim Sung-ryung), a deliciously cold-blooded operator who waltzes into police headquarters like she owns the joint and gives Won-ho vital information before promptly dropping dead. But the real catch from the lab explosion is Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol), a low-level gofer who agrees to help Won-ho locate Mr. Lee.
The most gripping sequences involve Won-ho going undercover as a member of Mr. Lee’s organization. This brings him into contact with Ha-rim, a vicious Chinese-Korean drug boss played memorably by Kim Joo-hyuk (“Yourself and Yours,” 2016) in his final role before his tragic death in October 2017. That’s just the start of an exciting series of switcheroos and deceptions that requires Won-ho to also impersonate Ha-rim in front of Sun-chang (Park Hae-jun), an extremely nasty lieutenant in Mr. Lee’s gang.
Though Won-ho’s search for the real Mr. Lee becomes overstuffed with too many villains, they’re an entertaining bunch. Jin Seo-yeon is dynamite as Bo-ryeong, Ha-rim’s alarmingly eccentric girlfriend, while Cha Seoung-won snarls effectively as Brian, the quietly crazed son of a dead industrialist. Best of all are Kim Dong-young and Lee Joo-young as deaf/mute brother-and-sister drug cooks who banter amusingly in obscene sign language when the action moves to their isolated lab.
Where “Believer” comes up short is in the crucial central relationship between Won-ho and Rak. A tense, high-stakes scenario such as this is ripe for a probing examination of cop-informer psychology. The screenplay settles instead for Rak’s mild taunts about how Won-ho can’t succeed without him, and repetitious scenes of the detective slapping Rak around for allegedly withholding information.
“Believer” may be more impressive around the edges than at its core, but that doesn’t prevent it from delivering a pretty solid two hours of action and suspense that’s muscularly directed by Lee and stylishly shot by Kim Tae-kyung (“The Throne,” 2015). Punching the narrative along is a terrific, predominantly electronic, score by ace composer Dalpalan (“The Wailing,” 2015). All other technical work is spot on.