Film Review: Drug Cartel Thriller ‘Believer’ Supplies Explosive Action

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If you thought Hollywood had the cornered the market on seemingly unnecessary remakes, think again. Back in 2012, Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s “Drug War” opened to critical acclaim, strong box office, and eventual awards recognition. Hoping to repeat that success, Lee Hae-young brings his take on that story with “Believer“. As with any remake, there’s an inevitable element of familiarity. But this gripping tale of crime also forges its unique identity, adapting a proven formula to deliver heart-pounding entertainment.

Transposing much of the action from Hong Kong to South Korea, the film centers on a powerful drug syndicate. Successfully, operating covert factories and distribution networks, they have eluded the law for decades. One day, however, a drug factory explodes as part of a string of hits on important members within the group. With the aid of the lone survivor of the attack (apart from a severely burned dog), a cop named Won-ho (Jin-Woong Cho) investigates and discovers that all signs point towards the mysterious Mr. Lee, the boss whose identity remains meticulously hidden. Determined to finally bust the case of this deadly cartel, Won-ho embarks on a dangerous mission to capture Mr. Lee. But as he goes undercover to infiltrate the drug world, he finds himself coming dangerously close to assimilating into this world of crime.

The morally compromised undercover cop is hardly a new trope to the crime thriller genre. But “Believer” takes it to another level of nihilism. When asked why she does drugs, a character retorts that “the world’s gone to shit.”

For better or worse, that sentiment sets the tone for the rest of the film. As on-ho plunges himself deeper into the underworld, the film introduces a slew of characters engaging in acts of violence for the sake of survival or gaining power. From shootouts to explosions, the film’s action-packed plot dares you to get bored.

But the brisk pacing comes at a price, as it sacrifices genuine character depth in both protagonist and villains alike. While on-ho’s determination is admirable, there’s a lack of nuance to his aggressive behavior. Any internal dilemma or guilty conscience seems lacking, as he seems all too eager to cross any line in pursuit of his target. Similarly, another character is so menacing and trigger-happy that he makes Tony Montano look level-headed. But eventually, his belligerence becomes borderline cartoonish. And if you’re looking for female characters to balance out the display of hyper-masculinity, you’ll be sadly disappointed. The few female characters are virtually all expendable.

Despite some shortcomings, “Believer” is still solid mainstream entertainment for those seeking slick production values, exciting action scenes, and an engaging storyline. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it provides a satisfying movie-watching experience. It’s a remake that proves its worth.

“Believer” opens in select theaters June 8.

GRADE: (★★★)