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MOVIES: Believer - Review [Fantasia 2018]

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The Fantasia International Film Festival has often played host to some of the best action films from across the globe, and this year's annual event is no exception. Among the cream of the crop is Believer, director Lee Hae-young's ultra-stylized remake of the 2012 Johnnie To film Drug War. Exchanging gritty environments for often lavish setpieces and boasting a restructured final act, this tale of a narcotics detective and his obsession with an enigmatic drug lord is violent, disturbing and immensely captivating.

After the brutal death of an underage informant, Detective Jo Won-Ho (Cho Jin-woong) is nearly pushed over the edge in his dogged pursuit of the anonymous crime boss known only as "Mr. Lee." But the young girl's death is only the beginning, and soon more and more of Lee's associates are taken out in particularly gruesome fashion. A warehouse explosion meant to obscure evidence leaves one employee alive: Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol), whose meteoric rise through the ranks of Lee's organization positions him as the perfect candidate for an undercover operation to expose the man at the top of the food chain. 

While Lee Hae-young packs plenty of memorable moments into his frenetic remake, Believer's best sequence is lifted almost part-and-parcel from the original version: an insanely complex double deception, where Won-Ho must pose as one of the organization's top lieutenants to broker a deal with a deranged Chinese-Korean gangster (Kim Joo-hyuk, who died tragically shortly after production), and then impersonate the drug-fueled crime boss in order to meet with Lee's actual buyer only a short time later. The mounting tension during both encounters is almost exhausting to endure, and Cho Jin-woong's performance is absolutely stellar as he shifts between these two wildly diverse personas.

Not to be outdone, Ryu Jun-yeol is equally great as the quiet and stoic Rak, with his best work coming during a handful of brilliant scenes shared with a deaf-mute pair of siblings who also happen to be the best drug manufacturers around. The profanity-laced sign language in these moments provides Believer with some much-appreciated levity amidst an otherwise grim saga that's frequently punctuated by chaotic violence, such as a lengthy shootout in a hotel suite or a vicious brawl preceded by the arrival of a severed arm clutching a cell phone, wheeled in on a room service tray.

Die-hard fans of the original film may be put off by the notably larger scope and multiple diversions from the source material, but there's no denying that Believer not only offers the requisite firearms and fisticuffs demanded by the genre, but also arrives with some major surprises and numerous top-notch performances, all packed into a consistently exciting and thrilling package.

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