Richard Coyle first made an impact playing Jeff in the Steven Moffat sitcom Coupling. Keen to avoid typecasting he left following its third series and moved onto other things. First up was Strange, a Jonathan Creek-alike series for the BBC, albeit with a more pronounced supernatural element, in which he played a defrocked priest. Unfortunately for Coyle a planned second series never saw the light and so he settled into the role of supporting actor. The problem, for this reviewer at least, is that he’s never quite escaped the shadow of Jeff, meaning his presence in an episode of Cracker, say, or opposite Johnny Depp in The Libertine can prove a mite distracting. Never was this truer than in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where not only do we find Coyle within a big-budget Hollywood fantasy, but we’re also expected to buy him as both one of the villains of the piece and the brother of Jake Gyllenhaal. And so when a British remake of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher was announced in which Coyle would take on the lead role previously occupied by Kim Bodnia, it was hard not to think that a misjudgement had taken place.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first remake Pusher has been treated to, nor is it the first to be set in the UK. Anglo-Indian actor Assad Raja put together a Hindi remake in 2010, also called Pusher, which was filmed in Leicester and set to the backdrop of the 1999 cricket World Cup. (Despite its apparent obscurity, the film is easily available on DVD in the UK.) There have also been rumours that Fox TV were interested in doing an American translation of the Danish original, though so far these have come to nothing. The current remake was mounted by producer Rupert Preston of Vertigo Films, who had previously worked on the original sequels to Pusher with Refn as well as Bronson, his first British feature (following an unexpected stint on ITV’s Marple). Indeed, Refn himself is on board as executive producer and was committed enough to the project to help promote it on its theatrical release and get involved in audience Q&As. This isn’t a mere opportunistic knock-off, then, hoping to cash-in on the freshly-found cult success Refn has picked up from Bronson and Drive, but something a little more serious and considered.
The first sign of that seriousness is the realisation that Coyle’s casting actually works. In fact, he’s arguably the best thing about the entire picture. He plays Frank, a mid-scale drug dealer whose life takes a turn for the worse over the course of a particularly bad week. This man – who initially appears to be quite tough and arrogant, though not without his charms – is gradually revealed as increasingly vulnerable. In the original Pusher we had Bodnia taking on the part, an actor whose toughness is never in doubt thanks to his burly frame, but also one who is capable of much more than simply playing the heavy. (He is likely best known to UK audiences for playing Martin Rohde in the Scandinavian TV series The Bridge, a role that similarly went beyond mere brawn.) Coyle, on the other hand, isn’t an actor you’d immediately think of when it comes to a violent drug dealer, yet he downplays here and that pays off immensely. Occasionally we get glimmers of his usual nice guy persona coming through which only adds to the sense that there is an ordinary bloke underneath it all. Oddly enough, his beard and lived-in features (especially the almost perma-scowling eyes) brought to mind Andy Serkis – which is certainly an improvement on being reminded of Coupling’s Jeff every few minutes.
Furthermore, Coyle’s control in the lead role allows some of his co-stars to loosen up a bit more. Paul Kaye gets to chew the scenery during his supporting turn, while Bronson Webb goes all out playing the part of Tony, Frank’s younger partner in crime, which was previously inhabited by a shaven-headed Mads Mikkelsen. (The two actors’ approaches are very different.) Maintaining a bit of continuity with the original Pusher we also find Zlatko Burić returning to his role of Milo, the drug lord to whom Frank owes a sizeable debt, and maintaining that constant sense of threat and intimidation. Importantly, director Luis Prieto makes sure that the violence always feels entirely real. He may opt for a heightened stylistic approach that is very different to Refn’s original – if anything, it feels more obviously influenced by Drive – but still keeps a grip on reality. The film is never allowed to descend into a cartoon and that is, undoubtedly, a good thing. As Coyle notes in his on-disc interview, Pusher is more than usual “East End drugs ‘n’ guns” pic.
Indeed, Pusher is solid little crime thriller. Sharply directed, tightly scripted and blessed with a decent ensemble. (Neil Maskell gets a small role and, as always, is worth a quick mention.) It also takes a great deal of its energy from the Orbital score, their first for a feature since the mediocre Brit horror Octane in 2003, while Prieto’s outsider take on London creates a distinctive look that separates his movie from the usual British gangster fare. If there are weaknesses then some can be put down to flaws in the original Pusher – which ultimately turned out to be the least of its trilogy – but as a remake it’s far better than we should have expected.
Pusher comes to UK Blu-ray courtesy of Momentum Pictures. The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio using an AVC 1080p encode. Put simply, it looks excellent with Prieto’s slightly heightened colour scheme popping just as it should and the level of clarity and detail coming across superbly. Needless to say, for such a recent production damage and other signs of wear and tear are non-existent. The film looks as good as should. Similarly the soundtrack is very strong, handling the Orbital score in particular without issue or flaw. Do be aware however that the musical component comes across way more forcefully than the dialogue prompting some scene changes to be more than a little startling. Optional English subtitles are also available.
The disc finds space for three extras in the form of an 18-minute ‘making of’ featurette, a 12-minute excerpt from a Q&A session hosted by critic Jason Solomons and the original theatrical trailer. The first is a thorough enough affair that takes us from conception to production with input from Prieto, Refn and the key cast members. Most of them, including Refn, also return for the Q&A (plus Orbital). The emphasis in both is that this particularly Pusher is a different beast to the original. Refn discusses how he looks back on his 1996 feature and sees flaws (and communicated these problems to Pietro, though he had no input in the new screenplay), while the actors all mention how none of them watched the Danish film before or during filming so as to only bring their own ideas into play. (Note that the ‘making of’ and trailer are presented in HD, but the Q&A footage is presented in standard definition PAL.)