Believer is an unsettling procedural with flashes of nutty brilliance.
Loosely adapted from the 2012 Johnnie To film Drug War, Believer is an unsettling procedural with flashes of nutty brilliance. It strikes a fascinating balance between calculated psychological drama and batshit pulp glee, but it fails to stick the landing with its cop-out, arthouse conclusion.
The film stars Cho Jin-Woong as Won-ho, a dogged detective tasked with bringing down the slippery drug lord Mr. Lee. Won-ho’s only real lead is an informant who is killed in the film’s heartbreaking prologue, leaving him with a cold trail and dead ends. But two fortuitous new avenues drop into his lap. First, in the form of Ms. Oh (the delightful Kim Sung-ryung), one of Mr. Lee’s associates who narrowly escapes death in a bombing incident meant to clear out his organization. She offers to help Won-ho bring down the man no one has ever seen in exchange for concluding open investigations in her name, until she’s poisoned in police custody by one of Mr. Lee’s men.
That leaves Won-ho with another survivor of the bombing, the lowly factory worker Seo Young-rak (Ryu Jun-yeol) whose mother was slain in the incident. Seo agrees to help bring down Mr. Lee, as he wasn’t even supposed to be at the factory that day and was in the middle of helping broker a deal with a new supplier from China (an insane man played by the late, great Kim Joo-hyuk in his last role.) It’s from this scenario that Believer enters its most effective sequences, functioning as an undercover thriller as Won-ho’s team must intercept the supplier, placing their operation in between the two parties to try to get closer to Mr. Lee.
The suspense and subterfuge are all made possible by the fragmentation of these drug organizations, each functioning like shady corporations where most of the important players have only ever been seen by a handful of trusted workers. This allows Won-ho to push himself out of his comfort zone to inhabit two such characters, with mixed results. He’s just not built for this level of deceit, but pushes forward anyway to try to catch his man. The film moves at a deliberate, noose-tightening pace for this section, piling on unstable supporting players and impossible to navigate customs in this underworld.
But eventually, that game of cat and mouse must come to a head, giving way to some watchable but unspectacular action sequences and a late twist that is telegraphed pretty hard throughout. It’s unsurprising that the film winds up going full The Usual Suspects, but the conceit of a mysterious, criminal boogeyman no one has ever seen opens up fun narrative possibilities that unfortunately must conclude whenever the audience finally meets him. The reveal is lackluster, but the build to that point is fascinating enough to mask its mediocre execution.
Director Lee Hae-young is adept at capturing the dread and emptiness of the war between police and drug dealers, so the film’s best moments all lie in exploring that specific melancholy in the chase. His bursts of cartoonish madness, too, lend credence to those disquieting beats, but whenever the film tries to be a full-fledged action thriller, it leaves much to be desired. If the over-the-top climax was also the conclusion, that level of misplaced bombast could be forgiven, but Believer limps along for an icy denouement that fails to provide catharsis. Whether that is a meaningful creative decision is beside the point, as it still results in an unsatisfying finale to an otherwise interesting and well-performed film.