By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
Ambitious mid-level drug dealer Frank suffers through a very bad week in the gritty London-noir crime drama “Pusher.” The movie is a showcase for quietly dynamic British actor Richard Coyle (“W.E.,” “5 Days of War,” TV’s “Covert Affairs”), who is in every scene and elevates the proceedings to something more than a typical man-on-the-run thriller.
“Pusher” is a remake of a 1996 Danish film directed and co-written by Nicolas Winding Refn, whose brilliant 2011 Ryan Gosling-starring “Drive” was a similarly downward-spiraling drama about another conflicted and desperate antihero. Matthew Read scripted the largely faithful new adaptation of Refn and Jens Dahl’s original screenplay. “Pusher” is the first English film directed by Spanish director Luis Prieto.
What starts out looking like it might be a so-so British buddy flick gets better the more things get worse. It’s hard to believe the cool, reasonable and serious-minded Frank (Coyle) would have a sidekick as immature, vulgar and stupid as Tony (Bronson Webb), who comes off like a crassly lowbrow doofus.
Frank’s fortunes are riding on a courier who is scheduled to smuggle a half-kilo of cocaine to him from Amsterdam. All of Frank’s money is tied up in that deal, but Tony convinces him to make another high-volume transaction using drugs borrowed from gangster Milo (Zlatko Burić, reprising his role from the original film), who isn’t the forgiving type.
Frank can’t figure out whether the disaster that follows is the result of a betrayal, a police set-up or simple bad luck. That uncertainty doesn’t keep him from beating Tony nearly to death in paranoid rage. On the positive side, this takes Tony out of the plot so the movie can focus less on unconvincing guy-talk banter and more on frantic Frank.
“Pusher” has some story problems, such as the fact that the police seem to lose all interest in Frank after releasing him from custody instead of simply following him to some of his dicier destinations. But Coyle is always interesting to watch as the haunted Frank, scrambling to come up with money to pay back Milo while pinning all of his hopes on an Amsterdam delivery that looks more and more dubious.
Model Agyness Deyn is gorgeous but vulnerably tragic as Flo, Frank’s neglected and heroin-using girlfriend. An exotic dancer by trade, Flo is insulted and hurt when a partygoer assumes she is a prostitute and offers her money for sex. “I do a bit of escorting,” she pathetically rationalizes to Frank later, “but that is not the same as being a whore.”
Mem Ferda (“The Devil’s Double”) is excellent as Milo’s bearded and burly enforcer Hakan, who seems genuinely apologetic about having to deliver beatings, kneecappings and worse.
Like Refn’s “Drive,” “Pusher” has an unusually retro-sounding score, this one supplied by electronica artists Orbital. Director Prieto is good at making Frank’s world seem increasingly claustrophobic and harsh as things go from bad to horrendous.
Be warned that the movie’s inconclusive final scene, which mirrors the 1996 original, may seem more like an unexpected stop than a satisfying ending. Or maybe it only feels that way, because it’s hard not to want to see more of Coyle’s fascinating, falling-apart Frank.