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By KJ Doughton | October 31, 2012

Luis Prieto’s “Pusher” will encourage you to pay off your Master Card… pronto. An English-language re-make of Nicholas Winding Refn’s 1996 Danish thriller, “Pusher” ponders the considerable perils of underworld debt.

Jettisoning Refn’s original Copenhagen setting, Prieto transports his film to London’s nocturnal dance-club subculture. Frank (Richard Coyle), a wily dope dealer, is quickly, quietly imploding under the stress of an unpaid loan. A botched sale of “gear” (British slang for drugs) has left Frank owing 55,000 pounds to Milo (Zlatko Buric), his Serbian gangster boss.

Milo offers Frank an offer he can’t refuse. Return the funds, or lose your knee-caps.

In a pivotal, climactic scene, Frank helms a robbery from within the crowded confines of a packed party house. Amped up on cocaine and waving a pistol in each hand, Frank resembles a cornered crab snapping its outstretched claws. His sweaty face jerks, squints, and twitches, zapped by an electric wave of cortisol-fueled paranoia. Frank is desperation incarnate.

With “Pusher” scheduled to hit theaters within 24 hours, Prieto is managing his own considerable stress. Speaking from a cell phone in downtown Los Angeles, the director’s words are being drowned out by screeching sirens and honking horns. “I’m speaking from a crowded parking lot on the street,” he laughs, apologizing for the blaring background noise. “What can I say? It’s L.A.”

“Pusher” borrows much from its popular predecessor, which also spawned two sequels (collectively known as the “Pusher Trilogy”). But Prieto delivers a more adrenalized high. Refn’s film was visual morphine, burrowing deep into the grungy filth of ratty apartments and bars. Prieto employs a flashier aesthetic, drowning the senses in constant blasts of discotheque color and pulsating techno music. “I spent time researching where drugs were sold and used in London. It was happening in dance clubs.”

With the intense, tightly-wound magnetism of a young Russell Crowe, Coyle morphs from confident cool-cat to deranged paranoid. Early in the film, Frank views Flo, his straw-haired, stripper girlfriend (Agyness Deyn) as an object of desire. When fight-or-flight kick in, he envisions her as an inconvenient distraction. It’s a wordless transition, conveyed through Coyle’s intense, expressive eyes. Meanwhile, the film’s ending has been changed considerably from the original script. Prieto explains that Coyle’s wiry physicality was a huge influence on this decision.

Coyle delivers a solid, leading-man performance. However, “Pusher” is owned by brilliant Croatian actor Zlatko Buric. The sole cast member to return from Refn’s original trilogy, Buric revisits his role as Milo, a tough-yet-tender Serbian Don Corleone. Buric towered over the original films, and he commands the same authority this time around. Although Prieto was adamant about not parroting Refn’s legacy, he explains that Buric’s re-appearance was meant as a “tribute” to the original film.

Milo might be the villain in “Pusher,” but Buric plays him with so much human nuance and subtlety, we empathize with his pushy demands for dough. Wearing an oily mullet, silk shirt and dapper sport-jacket over his mountainous girth, Buric appears both sleazy and suave. Even as Milo resorts to electro-shock torture to reprimand a deadbeat associate, he reflects a sad resignation. We sense that this gregarious teddy bear of a man doesn’t really enjoy killing and maiming for money. But in the end, business is business.

Like the risk-taking anti-heroes populating “Pusher,” Prieto is taking a huge chance in re-tooling a cult classic. The original film kick-started Refn’s celebrated career, which culminated in last year’s exhilarating “Drive” and a Best Director prize at Cannes. It’s a tough act to follow. Meanwhile, it’s a delicate tight-rope act to win audience compassion for such a dodgy lead character. Coyle exudes an earthy, everyman charm. But as Frank succumbs to ever more despicable acts of bottom-feeding (for example, pilfering Mom’s savings account), will audiences empathize with his plight? Meanwhile, will purists approve of the film’s dramatically altered finale?

In the paragraphs that follow, this formidable filmmaking force behind a new, re-imagined “Pusher” expresses his own opinions on the above… over the ongoing, inner-city noise of LA’s mean streets.

The original “Pusher” was directed by Nicholas Winding Refn in 1996. Why a re-make?
Originally, I didn’t want to make the film. The English producers from Vertigo had seen a short film (“Bamboleho”) I had done, at an English film festival. When the idea for “Pusher” was going around, Vertigo producer Rupert Preston approached me and said, “Luis, we want you to do the re-make.” I said that I was flattered, but that I admired the original “Pusher” too much to do a re-make. I wanted to do something fresh and new. They said, “We want you to make it your way.” I also received the blessing of Nicholas (Winding Refn), the producer and creator of the story. That’s how it all came together.

The pulsating music and dance clubs become characters unto themselves. The club scenes are very visceral – kaleidoscopic rhythms and light. 
Once I started researching the film, I realized that in London, drugs are sold and used in dancing clubs and discotheques. I wanted to capture this, with the colored lights and shadows. I wanted to make the film start out big, with the brave, flashy, vibrant colors of London clubs. Then, when reality hits the fan, we go from Heaven all the way down to Hell – from the bright nightlife into the dark underground world of drugs.

The original “Pusher” is set in Denmark, but your film is based in London. What were some cultural differences that had to be addressed and revised for your version of the film?
Some of the scenes in the script were talking about the world of drugs in London happening in pubs, not clubs. Through my research, I changed this. The film had to be meaningful and accurate, in reflecting where the London drug world was actually based. I also added something from my own background. I’m a Spaniard, living in Italy, going to England to make a film (laughter). I remember walking with the producers and location manager (in London). I would say, “This would be a great place to shoot a scene.” They would ask, “What’s so special about it?” As a foreigner, I would see things in the city with a fresh eye. Things that people living there get used to seeing every day.

There’s a key scene where Frank robs a fellow criminal during a crowded party, with both guns drawn and the camera circling him like a vulture on steroids. There’s a sense of visual, almost palpable stress.  Can you elaborate on how the scene was filmed?
Ultimately, what we tried to do was put the spectator in Frank’s shoes, to take same ride that he was taking. Frank is riddled by drugs, cornered… he’s on the run. We wanted to create the effect of being in that situation, and what he’s feeling, getting to that point. We did this through stylistic choices and tricks. He’s freaking out, laughing, and screaming. He’s breaking down. We did small jump cuts. The image is jumping and skipping, to give the feeling of what’s going on in Frank’s head.

“Pusher” is about a man in debt. In global society, it seems as though nearly every country and each person is experiencing some variation of this. Is “Pusher” meant to be a commentary on this situation… a cautionary tale?
I didn’t consciously think about it as a reflection of global economics. But when you’re in debt, you are not free. You’re influenced by the person that you owe money to. The more you owe, the more you do to satisfy these people. You’re less free.

In “Pusher 3: I’m the Angel of Death,” Zlatko Buric gives one of the greatest, most under-rated mobster performances I’ve ever seen. He reigned over the original trilogy, and I was pleasantly surprised to see him resurface in your film.
Zlatko is a very tender man. But as a performer, he can give you a look, and scare the s**t out of you with it. Just as I wanted to make Frank sympathetic, I wanted to make Milo a nice, normal guy – as much as he could be. You can understand his demands for the money. He’s a bigger fish than Frank, but there’s another, bigger fish above his head. There’s a beautiful moment in the film, where Milo tells Frank, “I care for you like you are my son, but business is business.” I wanted the spectator to think that Milo is charming, while also thinking, oh my god. This guy is dangerous.

I thought it would be great to have Zlatko in the new film. It would be a tribute to Nicolas, and to the fans of his trilogy. I thought, this is great, but I want to do something fresh. I told Zlatko, “Please do something different than what you did in Nicholas’ ‘Pusher.’” He said, “Relax. I don’t even remember anything at all about making it.”

(Perhaps there’s an ironic reason for the cloudy memories. Earlier this week, Pierto was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that Buric told him, “We were all doing drugs at the time”).

He reminds me of Marlon Brando…
Zlatko is well known in Denmark because of “Pusher.” He’s also a musician. He’s an incredible actor. He can make the screen go from light to dark within a couple of frames. Unfortunately, not too many people outside of Denmark know about him.

What is your personal view on criminality? Do you think that it is the product of heredity or environment?
It’s a very complex matter. There are so many situations people are in that influence this. One thing I was trying to portray was that Frank had a mom. Before all of this, he was a kid. You get the feeling that Frank was once like every other kid, with the future ahead of him – maybe a future of becoming a doctor or doing something useful for other people. But something went wrong. He’s in a criminal world, selling drugs. He would like to dream of a different life, but feels too trapped to make that change.

And there are economics. If you grow up in a poor neighborhood with no resources, you might make the wrong choice more easily than the guy who goes on summer vacations, attends a university, and gets a really nice job. If you have this around you, it’s easy to make the right choice. I’m not saying that living in poverty leads to crime. But if you have no resources, it might be easier to take a road that’s not legal.

Frank made the wrong choice, and now he’s stuck in that role for life. “I’m a drug dealer,” he tells himself. “That’s my place in society.”

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