Believer 2 (Netflix) returns Cho Jin-woong as a determined narcotics officer who plays by his own rules, recasts the elusive drug business operator who the cop is bent on catching – Oh Seung-hoon for Ryu Jun-yeol – adds in a random extra baddie or two, and switches out Believer director Lee Hae-young for Baek Jong-yul. But what it doesn’t do is add much of anything to the convoluted plotting of the first film, which itself rather needlessly complicated the storytelling of Drug War, the 2012 film it was remaking. And yet, Believer was a hit, so maybe that’s why this empty, bloody sequel got the greenlight to get made.
BELIEVER 2: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Believer ended with the crack of a gunshot and a load of assumptions. As narcotics division captain Won-ho (Cho) sat across the kitchen table of a remote farmhouse from Seo Young-rak, the cartel criminal who’d been one step ahead of him for the entire film, the two men engaged in some existential theorizing about whether it’s ever possible to truly get what one wants – this seems to be where the believing or lack thereof is supposed to come into play – before grabbing their pistols and firing. The camera cut away, so we were left to decide which guy got it. Was it the cop who gave up everything for this one collar? Or the drug biz guy with his own agenda of revenge? Or maybe both? What Believer 2 assumes is that viewers were left clamoring for a definitive answer to the question. That doesn’t mean it delivers one.
The film spends a lot of time restaging the action from the first, as “Rak” (now played by Oh Seung-hoon) and his trusty brother-sister drug cooks Manko (Kim Dong-young) and Rona (Lee Joo-young) destroy the operations of Brian (Cha Seung-won), a high-level drug supplier who’d been passing himself off as “Mr. Lee,” the original creator of a designer narcotic known as “Laika.” Because Mr. Lee always sold his product via proxy, Brian, like many other suppliers, knew he could rent some space inside the Lee identity – the name recognition would allow him to demand higher prices. But Rak and his cooks were only making Laika and using Brian as a tool to uncover the real Lee – with the true motive being to avenge the deaths of Rak’s parents, who the cartel leader murdered 25 years before. And if all of that isn’t confusing enough, Rak also developed a shaky alliance with Won-ho, who was leading the police investigation into Lee and the Laika cartel.
Grievously wounded by Rak, Brian nevertheless escapes police custody and sets about chasing down the guy who took a blowtorch to his back. Won-ho, now suspended for incompetence, is on a solitary, off-the-clock hunt for both Brian and Rak. And Seob So-cheon (Han Hyo-joo), also known as “Big Knife,” is chasing both of those guys too, in her capacity as the actual Mr. Lee’s chief enforcer. Believer 2 then winds its way from Jeju Island in Korea to the jungles of Thailand as this three-pronged chase unfolds. But that’s not all. It also piles on a series of confusing, thinly-told flashbacks that explore things like disgruntled spouses of cops getting mad of Won-ho for overworking his people, the competitive professional jealousies of cartel henchpeople, and Big Knife’s frustrated attempts to make Mr. Lee into a father figure. (He’s stingy with approval, no matter how many Mr. Lee impersonators she beheads.) And after a car chase and five or six meaningless firefights, we finally find ourselves back at that farmhouse , with Won-ho facing Rak across the table as Manko and Rona hover outside. And we’re still asking the same questions.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of? The first Believer was a remake of Johnnie To’s 2012 action thriller Drug War, which is well worth a stream on its own merits, or as a compare and contrast exercise. (To, for example, goes way harder on the drug cartel as peddlers of a life-destroying product, whereas in the Believer films, the chief drug being produced acts largely as a MacGuffin.) And speaking of remakes, not only did The Pirates: The Last Royal Treasure revisit the 2014 film The Pirates, but it also featured a fantastic performance from Han Hyo-joo as a swashbuckling ship’s captain.
Performance Worth Watching: Han Hyo-joo is basically one of the best things Believer 2 has going for it. As brain-fried cartel enforcer Seob So-cheon, aka “Big Knife,” Han holds her head at a perpetually neck-cricked angle, considers her adversaries with a disturbing vacant stare, and lives up to her nickname with a predilection for minion decapitations.
Memorable Dialogue: “I’ve come across three Mr. Lees just this year,” another of the real Mr. Lee’s triggermen explains to the low-level drug cook he’s about to dispatch. “Why do you keep messing with Mr. Lee, and ending up in situations like this?”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Whether anyone ended up actually believing in anything cannot be determined by another two hours spent in the Believer films’ universe. Believer 2 does have a handful of useful prompts from the action/crime film grab bag. Like Cha Seung-won’s Brian, for example, with his Christian zealotry and ailing body, who has his moments as a raging lunatic kingpin giving orders from an electric wheelchair. Or the ghoulish Big Knife, with her unsettling laugh and unstoppable killing machine antics. But otherwise this film is a total mess of go-nowhere flashbacks, a hollowed-out position in the plotting for Cho Jin-woong’s police detective – at one point he’s drugged, simply to remove his character from the action for awhile – and the utter inability to establish who is allying with whom for the duration of the movie or even for one assault on a cathedral-turned-drug lab in Thailand. Maybe some people really were left with questions at the conclusion of Believer. (That in itself is up for debate.) But Believer 2 is not possessed of the answers, or much of anything else.
Our Call: SKIP IT. Believer 2 extends the lives of a few characters from the first film, but adds nothing to their journeys through the empty landscapes and successive flare-ups of bloodshed that ultimately lead them back together.
Johnny Loftus (@glennganges) is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift.