Inevitability tends to take two primary forms in movies. There’s the fated sense, where a character’s actions bring down forces just waiting in the heavens to drop; and there’s the rote sense, where everything that happens happens because it already has a thousand times.
For a hard lesson in the difference between the two, check out Nicolas Winding Refn’s original 1996 version of Pusher before watching Luis Prieto’s almost entirely redundant British re-make. Better yet, just stick to the original: Fate is always more fetching than formula.
Transposed from the original’s Copenhagen (where part of its intrigue was the contrast between a squeaky-clean city and a brutal criminal underground) to London, and replacing Refn’s Dogme-steeped handheld style with strobe-explosive hyper-kineticism, the movie tells virtually the same story.
Frank (played by Richard Coyle, who could be Hugh Laurie’s seedier half-brother) is a made coke dealer who borrows a pile of cash from the unnervingly avuncular Milo (Zlatko Buric, reprising his role from Refn’s Pusher trilogy) to pay for a payload of dope that gets dumped in a river when the cops turn up at the payoff.
Screwed royally, Frank spends the next week trying to recover enough money to keep Milo from delivering on the promise made by a torture session that involved unpleasant applications of electrical currents, but each effort only ratchets up the desperation and certainty.
Although vaguely possessed of a professional code and rough decency – Coyle is the kind of actor who simply radiates those qualities, whereas the original’s Kim Bodnia radiated only simmering panic – Frank ultimately reckons with those chickens coming home to roost. And, like them, he’s cooked.
And here’s where our lesson in inevitability is tested. While Refn’s original was hardly revelatory narrative material – the story of confident thugs undermined by their own cocky hubris is as old as Little Caesar and ThePublic Enemy – the movie’s triumph lay in its docu-dramatic matter-of-factness: Frank’s world was milked for its cruddy realism, and the guy’s tragedy came from the fact that, in his myopic frame of reference, he actually thought he could get away with it. He might have been living out the oldest of cautionary gangster-movie conventions, but he didn’t think so.
In Prieto’s version, everything suggests 21st-century Londontown underworld swagger and cliché. The story of Frank’s downfall feels less an account of pathetic self-delusion than Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels revisited.
While it’s true that Prieto’s re-purposing of Pusher might play satisfactorily for people who haven’t seen the 1996 movie (and credit is certainly due to the director’s beefing-up of certain scenes and situations), the failure of the 2012 version is laid bare by the fact that its redundancy isn’t restricted to its status as remake.
The fact is, Refn’s original worked because it treated careworn crime-movie cliché from the inside out: It felt freshly life-or-death because that’s how it was for Frank. Failing to reproduce the same in-his-skin perspective, Prieto’s Pusher is peddling old product in a new baggie.