One of the finest Hong Kong cop thrillers of the previous decade, Johnnie To’s celebrated “Drug War” was a major success when it was released and continued his stance as one of the country’s finest modern directors. Now four years later, South Korea has opted for a remake of the film that takes the core essence of the same story into a new direction with Lee Hae-yeong’s new effort “Believer”.
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After a friend is killed, determined cop Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong, from “A Hard Day”) now has more ammunition than ever to nail the drug kingpin at the center of the past two years of his life. After getting further clues to his identity, he and his squad begin an operation with the survivor of one of the attacks, Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol, from “A Taxi Driver”), a low-level employee in the operation, and begin to work through the organization, in order to reach the top. Complicated by a sale between Rock’s higher authority, Park Seon-chang (Park Hae-joon, from “The Accidental Detective”) and a Chinese kingpin Jin Ha-rim, (Kim Ju-hyuk, from “Confidential Assignment”) that the organization is negotiating, as it seems everyone is trying to adopt the persona of the mysterious leader. As the stakes continue to rise with various personas looking to capitalize and take charge, the real figure behind the dangerous gang throws further fire onto the quest to stop the bloodshed around them.
For the most part, this was a rather enjoyable effort. What really works well here is the emotional resonances of the operation that takes place, running into the stakes of keeping their identities a secret rather early and often. With the ruse offered up due to the explosion at their house which sets this in motion, the desire to get revenge for the act alongside Won-ho’s single-minded desire to bring the cartel down at all costs, to firmly motivate the players involved. The deeper this goes, meeting up with the deaf-mute brother and sister or seeing the lengths the rest of the team goes to in order to provide the complete reasoning, gives this a strong setup.
Also enjoyable is the strong action present. Cinematographer Kim Tae-kyung offers up several spectacular action scenes, with the dizzying shootout in the factory being a big highlight here. Whipping and diving into several operatic pieces of Hong Kong-inspired bullet ballets as the explosive gunfire is given a wide berth and thrilling choreography that brings about a lot to like. Later setpieces, including the raid on the kingpin’s headquarters, offers even more explosive action with the added benefit of the gunplay being undertaken while under a smoke-grenade haze and bolstered by a nice series of brawls. To give these setpieces the added final touch, a series of sleek and stylish locations furnished by production designer Lee Ha-jun allows the elegant apartment where the double-cross goes down or the factory with the drug-making equipment, to stand out in glorious manners as everything looks really good overall.
While it has a lot to like, there are some problems here. The most egregious part of the story here concerns the actual plan to take out the drug lord. Lee Hae-yeong and Chung Seo-kyung’s script is predicated on a slew of people unaware of everybody’s true identity in order to function properly and move forward; an incredibly risky proposition. This setup increases the likelihood of anybody uncovering their plans at any point. Moreover, the film’s tangents later on in the second half to showcase the making of the drugs in the small village or the family, drag the pacing of the film out. These scenes are responsible for the extra long running time. Rather than focus on whether or not the identity switch at the heart of the story is going to be uncovered, the suspense is placed more in line with the double-crosses, coming from the organization itself. Not only is that setup rather convoluted but how long it takes to uncover the truth which is further undone by the weak finale, feels rather tame compared to the action presented beforehand. All told, though, these are pretty low-key problems with the film.
While there are some minor problems here, ‘Believer’ brings about enough to like that it serves as not only an enjoyable original but a stylish remake to one of the finest efforts in its genre. In the end, this proves heartily recommended to fans of this style of action/thriller or those interested in this due to the original while only the one who aren’t fond of these releases should heed caution.