BELIEVER: South Korea’s Slick Remake of Johnnie To’s DRUG WAR [Blu Review]

How to catch the devil? With style.

With one of the best trailers of 2018, and some fantastic pedigree as a Korean remake of Johnnie To’s Drug War, Believer became a hotly anticipated film as soon as its US marketing campaign kicked off.

Taking place in a somewhat mythical version of modern crime syndicates, Believer establishes a “Keyser Soze” type of situation with a fabled drug lord known only as Mr. Lee, whom no one has ever seen, but who pulls all the strings and can’t be touched. Our lead character, Det. Won Ho (Jin-Woong Cho), is obsessed with discovering the identity of Mr. Lee and quickly finds an in-road into the organization when Mr. Lee blows up his entire board of directors, but accidentally leaves one alive. With a board member of Mr. Lee’s organization alive but presumed dead, Det. Won Ho feels confident he can crack this case wide open… until she dies right under his nose and presumably at the devious hand of Mr. Lee. This leaves him with only one option: to question the only other (human) survivor of the board room blast, low level enforcer Rak (Jun-yeol Ryu). These two will dive ever deeper into Mr. Lee’s organization, with Won Ho becoming more desperate at every turn, in an unlikely attempt to bring down a legend.

The mystery at the core of Believer is what makes it kind of fun and sets it apart from the dozens of other crime syndicate films coming out of Asia these days. But it doesn’t distinguish it so much as to make Believer into some kind of modern classic. I had seen and enjoyed To’s Drug War a while back, and while I didn’t recall every last detail and set piece, it did seem like To’s version set up a lot of the intricacies and set pieces with a little more clarity. There was a tension and intentionality that truly kept your pulse quickening in Drug War. Some of those redone set pieces (that have a bit of a Mission: Impossible vibe with characters playing other characters because the contact has never seen their face, etc) have a lot of the same audacity as they did in Drug War, but aren’t executed with quite as much confidence. That said, Believer is extremely slick. It looks great, feels expensive, and therefore occasionally feels like the glossier younger cousin of Drug War that’s more handsome but not quite as smart.

Fans of crime films or Korean cinema will find a lot to enjoy here, with the creepily handsome Jun-yeol Ryu playing the quiet, out-of-his-depth Rak quite well. Lead star Jin-Woong Cho also does a fine job as the obsessed detective, but when one has seen the original film, some of the desperation found in Honglei Sun’s lead performance in Drug War isn’t quite as revelatory. It’s a strong script, however, filled with colorful supporting characters, a propulsive mystery, gorgeous cinematography, and a throbbing score. Believer doesn’t quite live up to its truly remarkable trailer, but you could do a lot worse than to spend a couple of hours trying to take down the mythical Mr. Lee.

The Package

Totally bare bones, Well Go USA opts to give you both a Blu-ray and a DVD for a combo pack, but nothing in terms of special features at all. At this point, it seems like a physical media package that solely includes the HD movie itself is begging people to simply rent it versus buying it. But those who really enjoy owning physical media for themselves will find a gorgeous and entertaining Korean crime film in Believer. I definitely recommend that the curious check it out, but there’s no need to urgently blind-buy this disc.

And I’m Out.

Believer is now available on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Well Go USA

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