Johnnie To has carried the Hong Kong action banner like few others and 2012’s Drug War stands as one of his greatest achievements, which says something, because the man has churned out some all-timers. Sure, that was only a few years ago, but that didn’t stop South Korean director Lee Hae-young (The Silenced) from remaking it as Believer. He puts more of a thriller spin on the proceedings rather than turning in a straight-up action ride, allowing the film to stand on its own, both for better and worse.
On the surface, Believer crafts a tense, slick, twisty crime saga. After losing a young informant, police detective Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong, A Hard Day) dives headlong into a quest to take down the mysterious kingpin Mr. Lee, the head of a massive cartel who no one has ever seen. He enlists the help of low-level runner Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol, A Taxi Driver), who has his own motives for turning on his former boss.
Cho has the hard-nosed investigator role down pat, and Ryu plays Rak like a quiet, stone-faced sociopath who cares more about a wounded dog than the death of his mother at the hands of Mr. Lee. Other strong performances pepper Believer. Park Hae-joon (Warriors of the Dawn) shows up as a brash, cocky cartel henchman, and Kim Sung-ryung is a blast to watch as an unhinged junkie. However, Kim Ju-hyuk stands out among the supporting players in what’s sadly his final performance before his death. He plays a manic, completely off-his-rocker supplier and perfectly toes the line between lunatic and camp in a way that’s convincing, hilarious, and terrifying all at once.
While To’s Drug War flies the Hong Kong action flag, Believer eschews the high-octane trappings for mystery and thriller flourishes. That’s not to say there isn’t action, or that To’s film lacks mystery and thrills, but in the bigger picture, this has more in common with gritty South Korean crime pictures like A Bittersweet Life and The Chaser—though it falls far short those films—than it does a straight-up HK banger. And while the action in Believer is fine, it’s not the film’s strong suit—the violence is nowhere near as interesting or well executed as its predecessor.
Gorgeously filmed, slickly produced, and well-acted, Believer hits all the markers. Problem is, it never delves beyond the surface accoutrements. Stylish and glossy, moving at a swift, propulsive clip, there’s little depth and not much emotional connection to speak of. There’s not much more to Won-ho’s motivation than the inciting incident. He lost a CI, but other than providing that initial push, it never haunts him or even factors into the story or character ever again. While the script presents a shifting, tangled plot, it twists and turns in predictable fashion, and telegraphs the big reveal in a major way—it’s easy to spot in a post-Usual Suspects world. And though it revels in the criminal underworld, it lacks the moral ambiguity, difficult choices, and nuanced ethos of the source. What we get is remarkably straight forward in that regard all things considered.
While certainly flawed and ultimately inconsequential, Believer is nevertheless a solid watch. It never soars like the film on which it’s based, nor does it hit the highs of other notable South Korean crime thrillers—which is, admittedly, a lot to ask. But if you can find it, this offers a serviceable, engaging, modestly effective tangled tale of cops and criminals. [Grade: B-]