'Believer' Review: A Captivating And Competent Korean Crime Thriller

Believer has all the hallmarks of what you'd expect from a drug crime movie: a femme fatale, an untrustworthy ally, multiple severed limbs, and even more gut-churning twists. And while Believer somewhat subscribes to the character types and recognizable tropes of the genre, the twists feel fresh enough and the tangled webs of drug world conspiracies are riveting enough to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Director Lee Hae-young's remake of the Johnnie To film Drug War transports the story from Hong Kong to South Korea, giving To's gritty crime thriller a sleek and moody makeover that alternates between fits of cartoonish violence and moments of poignant contemplation. But while the basic beats of To's 2012 film are there, Lee takes Believer to another level of brutal introspection — which sometimes works.

Believer stars Cho Jin-woong as Won-ho, the troubled and obsessive head detective of Seoul's narcotics squad, hell-bent on arresting the elusive Mr. Lee, the boss of the biggest drug cartel in Asia. So fixated on his goal, he doesn't even notice the silent pleas of his cartel mole, a battered teenage girl who opines, "I just want a normal life" before being thrust back into the fray. Only later, when she turns up murdered by Mr. Lee, does Won-ho sadly admit that, "she was like a niece to me."

Utterly human moments are sprinkled throughout the film, which can't seem to decide whether to give into its ultraviolent tendencies or deliver some profound message about single-minded pursuit. Believer chooses to be a cacophonous grab-bag of all of those things, offering up moments of emotional clarity while sawing off a goon's arm.

At a loss after his one informant is killed and his division is on the verge of being shut down, Won-ho stumbles into a bit of luck when an explosion at a Seoul drug lab wipes out most of Lee's higher-ups. Of the few survivors is a horribly burned dog and a low-level gopher Rak (a stone-faced Ryu Jun-yeol, who looks and acts like a K-pop idol). Won-ho ropes Rak into his operation to catch the drug lord and, aided by a scrappy team of underlings, Won-ho's new operation kicks the film into high gear, trading its contemplative mood for some high-octane pulp.

The standout of Believer is the most bombastic performer, Kim Joo-hyuk, who plays the psychotic Chinese-Korean drug boss Jin Ha-rim. The recently deceased Kim, who tragically passed away in October 2017, makes a visceral turn as the volatile and unpredictable Ha-rim, who becomes Won-ho's first obstacle in his winding path to Mr. Lee. And Won-ho has a lot of obstacles, his path littered with all manner of villain, each campier than the next. Admittedly, the movie starts to buckle under the abundance of baddies, but boy, are they fun to watch. Jin Seo-yeon is electric as Ha-rim's deranged girlfriend, Bo-ryeong, and Park Hae-jun is captivating as the menacing minion who terrorizes Rak. Even Cha Seung-won's sleazy Brian, who plays little more than a glorified cameo, is delightful to watch.

But it's Kim Dong-young and Lee Joo-young mute brother-and-sister duo who lend another layer of depth to Believer's rogues gallery. Rak's most trusted drug cooks offer that tiny spark of humanity that the film had dropped while concerning itself with its shoot-outs and switcheroos, imparting the "other side" with some sympathy as well. But, unfortunately, Believer never lingers on those moments.

Believer is strongest in its sleek action set pieces, which Lee films with a deft mastery. The subplot where the team deceives Ha-rim becomes one of the most entertaining sequences of the film, presented as a kinetic, Mission: Impossible-style heist. Lee floods the frames with the dark shadows and gritty textures befitting a crime thriller, but counterbalances that with breathtaking wide shots of the stark Korean landscape.

Ultimately, Believer is so intent on landing the twists that its plot threatens to fall apart if you look to hard. But Believer's brief moments of profundity and emotional catharsis help bring the movie together, even when the film tries to distract you from itself.

Believer is out in limited U.S. theaters now./Film Rating: 7 out of 10