Review: Lee Hae Young's BELIEVER Preaches A Violent, Well-Crafted Gospel

Most of the time, the narrative among film fans is that remakes suck. I don't know if that's the same consensus shared by middle-of-the-road types in audiences of Hollywood or international titles but generally you will come across folks who don't favor a lot of remakes and reboots for reasons all their own.

Such reasons are justified, compared to a lot of other cases that often get over looked in which a film, remade or rebooted from its predecessor, stands the test of its duration. Lee Hae-Young recently found the odds in his favor for his fourth directorial outing, taken from the filmic mastermind of Johnnie To to provide the niche with a renewed variant of the 2012 thriller Drug War.

Fast forward to 2018 and we now have a contender in Believer to whet our curiousities following its seething trailer delivery. A slightly derivative assortment here builds on what To offered in the original, telling of a cop desperate to bring a major criminal organization to justice with the help of a key witness.

Cho Jin-Woong taps into Won-Ho, the scrappy, jaded lead cop role held prior by Sun Honglei as the leader of an anti-narc unit under pressure from his superiors. Following the death of the head of a shipping company, that friction escalates when bodies start accumlating, leaving only one presumed witness in the form of Rak, Lee's incarnation of the Louis Koo role played by Ryoo Jun-Yeol.

Rak's affable cooperation with Won-Ho further entrenches the unit undercover with the drug underworld and eventually in the throes of a manical kingpin named Ha-Rim. With the aim of exposing an elusive crime boss named Mr. Lee, what ensues is a deadly game of charade with for our unit as another villain emerges with law enforcement ready to move in, and Rak forced to fight for his own survival.

Similarities between both this and 2012 film stand true to each other in terms of setting and tone, i.e., undercover ops and the lingering, imminent danger of having ones cover blown. Ryoo's refreshing performance as Rak opposite Cho's Won-Ho, compared to Koo's slightly more frenzied approach, brings poise to the remake, airing a propensity of stoic calm to his character, further anchoring his chemistry with Cho on camera.

Late actor Kim Ju-Hyeok's solid, posthumous performance leaves one that bodes as chilling as it does memorable as the menacing Kim Ha-Rim alongside actress Jin Seo-Yeon who plays his equally batshit lover. Man On High Heels star Cha Seung-Won plays the son of the late shipping boss in a role that bodes as nothing short of exceptional as a nefarious villain with a penchant for zealotry as his angle.

Lee's work presents a violent, haunting chessboard with a lot more pieces in the mix and a few moving at their own behest. The script, penned by Lee and co-scribe Jung Seo-Kyoung, works hand-in-hand with cast performances, serving each other equally in its thematic rendering centered on faith and purpose - both which become striking, pivotal turning points of thought for Won-Ho in the course of this story.

The reorganization of certain story elements derived from To's film also extend to what we now see in Rak's association with Kim Dong-Young and Lee Joo-Young who play a deaf, dumb sibling duo who operate a drug kitchen in a salt factory. Actor Guo Tao and Li Jing potrayed similar roles in 2012 and with slightly more unassuming character designs that lend perfectly to their imperviousness in the cunningly shot shootout sequence that followed. The action here pales quite a bit for the remake as it's treated somewhat secondary to the broader events that happen later, doing so at the expense of a more perfunctory impression by the siblings.

Saving somewhat best for last, Believer can certainly be credited for leaving something fun in the third act with a dual fight scene between the heroes and villains of our story. Two hours in at a supporting capacity among the rest of the co-stars as the only female member of the team, it's a much-deserved feat for actress Kang Seung-Hyun who also appears in this year's Don Lee winner, Champion.

There's a lot to absorb in Believer with the multitude of characters to keep up with and you might find yourself getting lost in trying to keep up. It's a small loss for development, but the film does plentily in making up for its shortfalls with stylish cinematography and an albeit cohesive, thematic evolution.

In its exit, Believer packs a profound punch in pure, Korean cinema fashion before the credits roll. To's film brings absolution by comparison and as such, and both endings work in their own special way with Lee's cause still serving beneficial to audiences, and jading almost no one who looks forward to exceptional action cinema.

(Release date, June 8)


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