Movie review: 'Pusher' breathes life into old trope

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Editor's note: "Pusher" was not previewed for Pittsburgh critics.

"Pusher" is a straight, no-chaser thriller set on the bottom rung of the drug trade ladder. A remake of a 1996 Danish thriller, it's a pulsating, propulsive and nerve-wracking film that breathes new life into a genre whose tropes wore out long ago.

The settings -- strip clubs, back alleys where deals are made, and swank apartments where high-rolling London junkies hide their cash in microwave safes and snort cocaine off their omnipresent glass tables.

The characters -- a pusher in over his head, his mouthy friend, his stripper-junkie girlfriend, the "mule" about to run to "the 'Dam" (Amsterdam) for him and the Middle Eastern muscle that expects payment for debts overdue.


'Pusher'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Richard Coyle, Agyness Deyne, Zlatko Buric, Mem Ferda, Bronson Webb.
  • Rating: R for pervasive drug content and language, some strong sexuality, nudity and violence.

Luis Prieto, working with producer Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed "Drive" and the original "Pusher," pushes the pace so that those over-familiar settings, situations and characters don't stand still long enough to grow stale. There's nothing new here, but the fresh coat of paint they spatter across it gives it life.

British TV vet Richard Coyle is Frank, a low-rent drug dealer with a model-skinny girlfriend (Agyness Deyne) who pole dances at night and shoots up or snorts during the day. Frank's pal Tony (Bronson Webb) chatters away to one and all and stumbles into trouble Frank must rescue him from.

Frank's a nice guy. But shortchange him, or threaten him or his friends, and he puts on his tough-guy face.

A deal that's too good to be true has Frank going into hock with his supplier pal, Milo, played with a malevolent brio by Zlatko Buric, who had the same role in the original film and a 2010 version of the same tale. Milo is a back-slapping baklava lover, until Frank is late paying him back.

"Leesen, Frank," he purrs. "I like you. But eef you don' come round tomorrow, you won' be able to walk again."

Milo's threats, and those of the cops ("Come on, Frank, we've got you fair and square") are just as recycled as the rest of "Pusher." But Mr. Prieto amps up the action and keeps Frank on the move through a torrid week of attempted deals, attempted debt collections and desperate efforts to buy more time.

Mr. Coyle wisely plays Frank as a guy who doesn't want you to see him sweat. He doesn't tell the girlfriend what's wrong, doesn't seem to panic easily. His eyes, his growing mania, give him away.

By the movie's third act, we've lost track of all the people Frank has crossed who should be closing in as fast as Milo and his muscle (Mem Ferda, also quite good). The film, lean and mean as it is, loses track of them as well.

"Pusher" may be "Layer Cake" and a score of other got-to-get-the-money thrillers remade. But the unblinking, unglamorous world it captures, the fear that overcomes guilt and regret as Frank's debt takes on tragic consequences, make it pop and give this tired tale of the drug trade life anew.

Opens today at the Washington Mall Cinemas.

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