Push It Real Good: Prieto’s Glossy Facelift of Refn’s Cult Classic an Empty-headed Bauble
Spanish filmmaker Luis Prieto makes his English language debut with a remake of Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 landmark first feature, Pusher, a ballsy move, considering the original is a veritable cult classic and a story which Refn turned into a trilogy and has gone on to influence a new generation of filmmakers. And while Refn himself gave his blessing, and is actually an executive producer on the project, Prieto doggedly pursues the exact same trajectory as the original, replacing the gritty aesthetic with style, gloss, and models. Drug dealing in the London streets never looked so fanciful and glam rock as it does here, and when it comes time for the violent stripe of degradation to rear its head, there’s no bite, no tension, and no feeling.
We’re introduced to our drug dealing protagonist, Frank (Richard Coyle), on a seemingly ordinary Monday, where the amiable but small time London pusher seems to be at the top of his game, carousing with his daffy sidekick, Tony (Bronson Webb) and canoodling with his stripper-by-night girlfriend, Flo (Agyness Deyn), an avid coke aficionado. While servicing his usual seedy clientele, he has just sent a mule, Danaka (Daisy Lewis) to Amsterdam to haul a shipment back to him with her talented orifices. Clubbing it up for one helluva packed Monday night bar, Tony gives Frank’s number to Marlon (Neill Maskell), a new potential client looking to buy a large amount of cocaine and fast. After establishing his seriousness with Neil in a spa, Frank approaches a supplier he’s done business with, Milo (Zlatko Buric). Since Frank already owes Milo three thousand pounds, he’s a little leery about just handing over forty five thousand pounds worth of drugs, but due to Frank’s profuse insistence that the buyer is a for sure thing, Frank seals his own fate. As the exchange is about to go down, Marlon and Frank are interrupted by the police, causing Frank to dump the goods in a pond. Released by the police, Frank suddenly finds himself in a race against time to collect all his debts and supply Milo with the money (plus interest) or risk losing his life.
Prieto definitely seems to have gone out of his way to legitimize his endeavor (a 2010 Bollywood version of the film also exists), securing Refn as executive producer and convincing Zlatko Buric to reprise the exact role he played in the original trilogy. But alas, this was all in vain, as, while not a bad film, this version plays like an indentured servant to its unique predecessor. The first film gave us gritty realism and ushered us into the greatness of Kim Bodnia and Mads Mikkelsen, playing characters that were aggressive, pathetic, and cruel. Their counterparts here, Coyle and Webb, seem like a hammy, comedic duo in comparison, devoid of realism, glossy and empty, as if the London underground were akin to Candy Land. In fact, it’s Prieto’s glossy stylization, in an effort to differentiate his version, which completely removes the venom. While he’s secured a provoking soundtrack from Orbital, he depends a few times too many on pulsing, neon-lit club sequences, leaning on the thump-thump and boom-boom of the bass to excite and enthrall rather than showing us any of that through words of action. This gives the film the effect of a modern, instrumental version of a Duran Duran video.
One (or maybe) two of these sequences could be an effective or thrilling accent, as when used to greater effect in something like Oren Moverman’s Rampart (2011), but here seems like a fancy and all too easy excuse to show us the decadence of Frank’s lifestyle. But Prieto’s greatest misstep in his insistence on giving us his version of an already great film is the casting of super model Agyness Deyn as the stripper coke-head girlfriend. In a world where, realistically, women don’t have much agency, much less, look the way Ms. Deyn does (resembling a doe eyed Stockard Channing), her presence closes the circle on this toothless fantasy of wheeling and dealing in the streets. This especially becomes apparent when, as the week drags on, Frank is forced to get serious, screaming, shouting, and yes, killing. But none of this seems to matter much, though it doesn’t help that, after Flo tearfully explains to Frank (and us) that just because she’s a stripper doesn’t mean she’s a whore (a man approaching her for a blow job in a club ruins an otherwise usually electric evening), Frank takes the time out of his busy schedule avoiding death from a Croatian debtor to buy her a skimpy outfit from Agent Provocateur to apologize.
The point being, there’s nothing that seems to be innately at stake here, and Prieto gives a world of pretty people looking like they’re having a fabulous time while they make the bad choices they do. But since we already get to see Lindsay Lohan suffer the consequences for making this age old mistake, not to mention those two other versions of the same film, why, but why, outside of a Sisyphean nightmare, did Mr. Prieto think we needed another one? Refn made us recoil, but this only makes us yawn.