Cult Cinema: The Pusher Trilogy and Beyond

Years before the success of Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn began his career when he was just 26 years old with the explosive crime drama Pusher

Pusher was a huge success in his native country, Denmark and the world over, spawning two sequels and two remakes (though I'm dismissing the Indian remake for blatantly ripping off of Refn's style). In this article, I will be taking a look at each of the Pusher films including the UK remake with Richard Coyle. 

Pusher (1996 – written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)

"We are bad asses. Hear us kill."
Pusher bursts onto the screen with an explosive montage of rock music and criminals emerging from the shadows, filmed with dim lighting from above against a black background. Refn was already marking his first confident stamp in the film world. Before Drive rocked audiences with its pink cursive credits and Daft Punk synthetic pop dance track, Pusher provided the most electrifying opening to a film in recent memory, with equal parts music-video montage and introduction to the faces of crime we'll come into contact with.

The theme and approach of gangsters lingering in the dark would become the theme song for all three Pusher efforts. Featuring music composed by longtime friend and musician Peter Peter, Pusher is influenced by a wide range of movies from William Friedkin's The French Connection to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. It's a non-judgmental look at the daily struggles of drug dealing that feels like a documentary. 

Unlike other gangster dramas suffused with cool hipster iconography, Refn's Pusher is as uncompromisingly unglamorous and realistic as can be. The protagonist, Frank, isn't a polished and fit star dressed in expensive suits; he's a bearded, heavy-set figure in a jump suit with tennis shoes, eliminating the 'movie star' cliché from our consciousness in favor of a stocky bouncer. Tonny, his flamboyant but equally intimidating sidekick, lives and breathes cool with his sports jacket, dark shades, and 'Respect' tattoo on the back of his bald head. Milo, with his curly hair and heavy figure, is a kind of low key Godfather who downplays his dangerousness with charming asides about Serbian desserts and cooking. Refn is obviously a fan of Tarantino, with characters speaking to each other less about their violent crimes than their relations and personal interests. A key scene involves Frank and Radovan, a thug and personal assistant to Milo, driving to the first debtor they'll try to extract dues from, while Radovan calmly muses about delicious pies in between talk of brutalizing the last guy who failed to pay up.
Pusher sparked a competition between Refn and Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier. Though they were colleagues, Trier reportedly felt that Refn stole his crown as the king of Danish film. Actor Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Hannibal) admits Pusher beat Trier and Thomas Vintenberg to the eventual creation of the Dogme 95 movement, which prided itself on using available resources, settings and light to tell the story rather than relying on all the artifice of cinema.

Intended as a stand-alone piece, Refn would re-visit the Pusher franchise with two sequels after the commercial failure of his first English-language feature, Fear X. Refn had to rebuild his film company after declaring bankruptcy, and the process was featured in Gambler, one of the most stressful documentaries about filmmaking ever produced. Refn would have to put his pet project Billy's People on hold indefinitely to revisit the world of Pusher. Refn felt that making sequels might stigmatize him, but it ultimately proved beneficial in rebuilding his company. Rather than continue Frank's story, the last two films would explore the lives of his cohorts, Tonny and Milo.

 Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands (2004 – written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)

"I'm so Mads right now!!!"
Picking up where Pusher left off, we find ourselves in sidekick Tonny's world, recently released from prison before venturing to his gangster father's garage business for work. While struggling to make ends meet, he learns he sired a child out-of-wedlock with a prostitute, and the news takes a toll on his return to a life of crime. Unlike the first film, which was a genre thriller told in real time, Pusher II functions more as a character study of a man at crossroads with his roots in crime. True to Refn's own personal struggles with bankruptcy over the failure of Fear X just as his wife gave birth to his first child, everything changes when a baby comes into the picture. Tonny may have been a good for nothing criminal, but his whole demeanor and perspective on his prior life of crime transforms with the news. Though Refn repeats the title sequence of the first film with new characters, this is clearly going in a different direction than Pusher, focusing on a criminal trying to shake his roots and rise above the underworld he's trapped in. 

Rather than simply remake Pusher, this second entry aims to tell a new story with a personal struggle as deep and fraught with frustration as its predecessor. Although stylistically consistent with the first film, it's worth noting The Pusher trilogy shouldn't be looked at as a crime saga, but as three separate stories involving the lives of the characters we knew from the first film. On an emotional level, it's far more downbeat than Pusher. This first sequel reflects the feelings of Tonny and his new outlook on the cards he's been dealt. His own tendencies towards violence are tempered by the knowledge of being a father. In a way, Tonny wants to spare his baby the kind of upbringing that led him to a life of crime.  
Heavily publicized at the time of its release was Refn's “street casting,” or use of non-actors to fit a bill better than a real actor would. “Kurt the Cunt,” for instance, is played by a man who was recently released from jail, and before the fourth Pusher movie was finished, he was arrested once again. Refn's sequel makes effective use of its low budget, relying on instinct rather than expenses. Unlike the heightened reality of his previous picture Fear X (which would eventually dominate his style in his forthcoming efforts), Pusher II goes back to the basics of hand-held camera work and mimicking his father and Lars Von Trier editor Anders Refn's editing style. Though made at a breakneck pace with some scenes scripted the day they were shot, Pusher II is an arguably stronger effort than its predecessor for the emotional complexity Refn taps into, giving the viewer a lowlife scumbag who develops a heart with values he never realized he had. 
Almost immediately after its creation, with no time left to spare, Refn began production on what would become the final chapter of the series and one of the director's darkest, goriest films before the eventual Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives.

Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death (2005 – written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)

"I just so ugly, I kill you
with me face, yeah."
Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death zeroes in on Milo (Zlatko Buric), the Serbian gangster from the previous two Pusher films. Unlike the prior pictures, which spanned several days in a week, Pusher III takes place over the course of one fateful day of Milo's life, one which will take him (and us) on a journey deep into Hell and back. Struggling with rehab, a drug deal gone wrong, and his daughter's wedding, we get a chance glimpse at the reality of Milo's violent nature beneath his heavy-set, aged exterior. Much like Pusher II, the third entry functions as a character study, providing us with a gangster we come to care about as an individual even as he descends into acts of extreme violence to maintain order and reinforce his place in the underworld. Unlike the first two features, however, Pusher III gradually morphs into an all-out bloodbath with scenes of evidence disposal that easily trump the gore factor of similar scenes in films like The Iceman and Pain and Gain. In terms of its rating, Pusher III contains the harshest sentence in some territories for its graphic violence and gore.
To say Pusher III is the darkest film Refn had made up to this point in his career is something of an understatement. Even the title and end credits to the entry are written in flowing blood (the prior films used white title cards). Milo, a chef who often works with slicing up meat, gets knee deep in the clinical cutting apart of human entrails, with some rather gag-inducing sights including a jammed InSinkErator. It could be argued that Pusher III is the closest that Refn has come to making a real horror film, telling the godfather's story without compromise or a way out, as we share with Milo the depths he must dive in order to protect himself. For Milo, it's just another day in the criminal underworld, but for us, it's positively draining.

When the film was over with, I honestly had to take a stroll around the block a few times to deal with what I had just seen. The tonality of Pusher III, unlike the first two, also echoes the watermarks of a horror genre piece, growing steadily more dreadful for Milo until both he and we descend together. Far riskier than the prior Pusher films, Refn's nightmare is confident in how it affronts the viewer and gives Milo a modicum of empathy in spite of his appalling crimes. Although Refn hinted at making a fourth Pusher, this final entry in the series seems to be a fitting closing note on the saga. Milo might be the same Serbian gangster we met in the first Pusher, but are we the same after seeing all this?

Pusher (2012 – directed by Luis Prieto)
"This remake isn't very good but
I'm super hot so that makes it okay."
In this recent, Refn produced UK remake of the iconic 1996 Danish gangster epic, British actor Richard Coyle embodies the role of Frank, the ill-fated drug pusher. Opening with a series of flash edits and electronic music by Orbital, Pusher dives into the cool way of Frank's life. Alongside him is Tony (Bronson Webb), an impish little creep who clearly doesn't deserve our trust or Frank's. Reprising his role from the original series (an inspired casting decision) is Zlatko Buric as the Serbian gangster Milo. Buric, with his thick Serbian accent and heavy exterior, says all his lines in English this time but essentially walks the same ground he did in Refn's trilogy. Soon, as with the original, things go from bad to worse for Frank after a drug deal is interrupted by Narcs and his debt to Frank becomes insurmountable. Refn himself has a voice-over cameo as a dealer who cheats Frank on a cocaine deal by giving him talcum powder instead of the real stuff. 

Though solidly acted by Coyle with Buric, who are as great as ever, this slick redux of Refn's 1996 film misses the point by glamorizing both the scene and heightening the sex appeal of its lead protagonist, Frank. Coyle, in contrast to Kim Bodnia, simply looks like a ladies' man. Tony, in this version, feels more like a sniveling leech than the cool, intimidating gangster Mads Mikkelsen portrayed with gusto in the original.

To be fair, 'Pusher' does a fair job of owing itself to the original, replete with an interrogation scene where Narcs pelt peanuts at Frank's face (which was in the original) and certain scenes of violence that echo their inspiration. Stylistically, this expensive remake is closer to Refn's newer films like 'Drive' and 'Only God Forgives' than the gritty hand-held cinematography that characterized the original. Luis Prieto's Pusher redux isn't so much a bad film as it is expected and disappointingly pedestrian by comparison. Clearly a cash-in for Refn, who served as executive producer, Pusher is certainly worth a rental or Netflix viewing, but it's also rather redundant and doesn't tell us anything Refn didn't already say back in 1996.  

-Andrew Kotwicki