When Nicolas Winding Refn was only 26 years old, he made his 1996 debut feature, Pusher. It wasn’t dazzlingly original, but it remains a fast, gritty genre movie that gained depth when a cash-strapped Refn (Drive) returned to the same universe with two sequels eight years later. Beyond its textured, street-level view of the drug trade, Pusher’s main takeaway is the perilous nature of being a dealer, squeezed between deadbeats who can’t pay, mules who can’t deliver, and sadistic higher-ups in no mood for excuses. Made with Refn’s blessing, for whatever that’s worth, Luis Prieto’s remake capably mimics the original’s breakneck energy without adding a single thing. It seems to exist mostly to stuff more violence into Britain’s insatiable maw for crime pictures.
“I didn’t do anything wrong” is the key line of Refn’s entire trilogy, and it underlines Richard Coyle’s predicament in Pusher. Already a few thousand in the hole to his supplier (Zlatko Buric, effectively returning to his role in the Refn trilogy), Coyle needs to pull off some error-free deals to climb his way out. But things immediately go awry when his fuckup friend (Bronson Webb) hooks him up with a new client for a huge deal, but the cops intervene on the exchange. Coyle manages to escape prosecution, but loses the drugs and the money—and the boss, predictably, isn’t especially sympathetic to his situation. Given little time to come up with the money he owes, Coyle desperately tries to collect outstanding debt from penniless clients and shakes down everyone in sight, all while waiting for a shipment from Amsterdam to replenish his depleted supply.
Prieto slavishly recreates the youthful flash of Refn’s original—the freeze-frame character intros, the Quentin Tarantino-esque small talk among crooks, the pulsing beats of nightclubs and strip joints—but there’s no attempt to reinterpret or even update it for a changing time. The eponymous character’s dilemma still plays, packaged in a drum-tight 90 minutes, but only the subtitle-averse have any reason to see it. Perhaps a better Pusher remake wouldn’t have met with Refn’s approval, and would have tried for some radical reimagining. As it stands, this one is merely 100 percent more British than it was before.