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Great Premise Wasted; 5 Great Stories That Deserved Better Movies

Great Premise Wasted; 5 Great Stories That Deserved Better Movies

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Where others may diagnose death for a failed film, a certain cinematic surgeon endeavors to breathe new life into moribund movies through extreme and invasive procedures. Whether it be rescuing invaluable elements from train wrecks for transplant, identifying cause of symptoms or resurrecting doomed patients with wholesale rewrites, Cinematic Surgery aims to show that even the most tragic or insolvable cases can be saved in the operating/editing room.

Such is the current culture in the filmmaking world that the very notion of suggesting ‘remake’ is considered sacrilege, a soul selling throw down to the cynical moneymakers bleeding dry a stable of beloved movies of the past in pursuit of sales through nostalgia and association, all to the detriment of goodwill and creativity. But the problem isn’t in the concept, it’s in the choices.

On occasion, there has been a film put out that sells itself through the strength of its tantalizing premise, then immediately shoots itself in the foot through shoddy or simply wasteful execution, dooming any attempt to salvage the wreckage for a superior product to potential copyright infringement hell. The worst thing you can do in the writing room, and on the set, is mishandle a great story. It is these motion pictures, not the Verhoven classics or yesteryear horror flicks, that require a second attempt.

With this in mind, here are five such movies that are ideal subjects for a second incarnation.

Sean Patrick Flanery, Christopher Walken, Johnny Galecki, Jay Mohr, Jeremy Sisto & Henry Thomas in Suicide Kings (1997)5. Suicide Kings

A quirkily offbeat and decidedly low-rent production, right down to its cast of B-movie regulars and sitcom stars, 1997’s Suicide Kings enjoyed a boon leading to a cult following due to snaring Christopher Walken as the central character in a twisty, comically orientated set up. While this, along with a madly improving Denis Leary, is the element that most viewers notice and remember about the film, it is worth noting that at its core is a brilliant caper concept.

Needing big cash to pay a ransom for his kidnapped sister, an erstwhile college kid hooks his childhood buddies into a fatally under-planned scheme to capture an infamous ‘crime boss’ and then in turn demand ransom for him. Multiple problems ensue, from the trick of cutting off the Mafioso’s finger as a warning backfiring when they discover he’s an alcoholic, to their hideout being compromised by an annoying fellow friend cut out of the loop. On top of this is a web of lies, deceits and agendas revealing the entire enterprise to be a house of cards, one that falls spectacularly, albeit with a lack of pre-promised grit and honesty.

For audiences wowed by such thrillers as the Ocean films and Now You See Me, Suicide Kings is a classic in waiting. One that, for all its charm and smarts, would be better served without flashbacks depicting younger Walken resembling Tommy Wiseau, long monologues about Micky Mantle baseball bats and The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki as a central character. A bigger budget, tighter script and more appropriate cast would doubtlessly make for a modern classic of the genre, as opposed to a cult guilty pleasure.

David Oyelewo in Red Tails (2012)4. Red Tails

He is such a derided and loathed figure in fandom these days, a straw man for easy jokes and diatribes, that it feels like a low blow to slam George Lucas. The man, after all, brought the world Star Wars (albeit after being talked in to making it cogent) and was behind the scenes for Indiana Jones among others. But forget the prequels, rant-inducing bilge that they are, and instead focus on perhaps his greatest sin. As a producer, Lucas put out 2012’s Red Tails, a depiction of the Second World War’s first African American air force squadron. Before release, he explained that distribution had been a nightmare due to the majority of the Hollywood film industry passing on a film featuring an almost entirely black cast, essentially passing off the trouble as institutionalized racism, during an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Sour grapes and blatant misdirection exposed when the film came out and tanked, rightfully so, since it took an inspirational true-life story and gave it the Phantom Menace treatment; overly abundant CGI, dreadful screenplay, awful direction, lifelessly dull yet loud and obnoxious. Any potential distributor in the world would have taken one look at the cut and seen a film financially unviable due to its absence of quality. The reliable and amiable David Oyelowo and the talented but inconsistent Terrence Howard cannot save Red Tails from falling from the sky and crashing in an unconvincingly rendered fireball. The jokes will continue to be told of Lucas since despite not holding directorial responsibility (Anthony Hemingway played the part of straw man)  his fingerprints were all over the miserable, wasteful mess.

The real life airman trained as part of the Tuskegee program are undoubted history makers and are deserving of celebration, so for their compelling and rich story to be conveyed in a manner that makes Memphis Belle look like Citizen Kane is downright disrespectful. When the past presents such an obvious template for motion picture treatment, it is perhaps too much to ask that first one to get there be of talent. But the second one, with any luck and hope, perhaps could do and should do far greater justice both to the great story and the real people.

Alastair Mackenzie & Dougray Scott in New Town Killers (2008)

3. New Town Killers

As much as it may bring a small personal sadness, there is a general dearth of quality export from the Scottish sector of British filmmaking, particularly if one is to disqualify the efforts of celebrated English directors Ken Loach and Danny Boyle. For all the poets and authors the nation’s history has put out, there are scant few visionaries behind the camera. Potentially a window into the why and the how is Richard Jobson’s New Town Killers, a small scale indie thriller that somehow manages to be both bold and un-ambitious all in the space of one hundred minutes.

The premise is that of survival action, a rare genre piece in the UK, as a down on his luck young man is given the chance to net a cool cash reward in exchange for one thing; he must survive twelve hours of night in Edinburgh’s cobbled streets while pursued by a pair of sadistic gamesmen living out and paying out on sick personal fantasy in an intriguing modern and urban twist on The Most Dangerous Game. High concept, simplistic and with an original setting and culture in which to base the action, NTK should in theory be both a breath of fresh air and a gripping if modest thriller.

In short, it isn’t, quickly pick-pocketing David Fincher’s The Game in search of inspiration and becoming cluttered with twists and betrayals rather than sticking to its core concept. A senseless ending intended to be upbeat but stinking of contrivance and retcon puts the final seal on an ultimately unsatisfying and often irritating plot which had the means to thrive but instead stagnates, going off-road and quickly out of the viewer’s memory banks. A huge shame, since with a little more creativity and panache, not to mention an understanding of the nuances within the stripped down action thriller niche, it could have been a breakout movie and an indication that the Scots can do more than bad slum neighborhood despair.

Still from R-Point (2004)2. R-Point

Despite being an enriched high concept, the key set up for Su-Chang Kong’s 2004 Korean horror flick R-Point has yet to occur to anyone tailoring to a broader market. In short, it is a ghost story set during a war movie, described by one broadcasting promo as ‘Full Metal Jacket meets The Blair Witch Project’. Given that it is set during ‘Nam, with the main cast representing the often forgotten South Korean contingent assisting the US, it is source of much mystery that no Hollywood producer or budding scribe has taken to the idea of a Westernized remake.

For all that it is a brilliant idea, well shot and directed, the story of a squad of rebuked troops sent to look for a missing unit in an infamous ‘haunted’ region of Vietnamese countryside loses its edge over time. Intriguing ideas (a member of the team disappears and is revealed to have never been part of the expedition) and genius shots (a ghostly squad vanishing in a paddy field) make for a good set up, but the story becomes stuck in the mud as gambits pile up and unnecessary personal connections are milked. The result is a muddled and overcrowded finale, one that dilutes the scares and leaves a sense of dissatisfaction.

This is a great shame, because although it comes across as a fraught first draft there is enough within the film to suggest it should have been a horror masterpiece. Or, light years ahead of the likes of Deathwatch and The Bunker. A little more restraint and focus on the supernatural evil behind it all, along with sacrifice of plot components that add needless complication and contrivance, would at the very least make it a huge hit rather than a promising slugger.

Christian Bale in Terminator Salvation (2009)1. Terminator Salvation

The thing everybody remembers most about McG’s failed effort to rejuvenate the Terminator franchise is Christian Bale’s rant at a cinematographer. Whether you felt it justified, outrageous, or downright funny, you will recall his bizarrely accented tirade with a far greater vividness that anything that appears in the narrative. This sums up where Salvation falls, not by being so awful that it alienates fans and casuals, but being so unremarkable and unmemorable that off-screen issues are more compelling.

While one could argue that this was fair dues for a film that was a cynical commercial enterprise looking for quick cash off the back of two excellent James Cameron films from almost 20 years before, it is worth noting that in the right hands (hands that could justify the film’s existence) Salvation could have been memorable. The startling prologue to Terminator 2: Judgment Day left a vivid impression on fans, after all, and suggested the promise in spending the length of an entire film within the ruins of post-machine takeover apocalypse. The human race withered down to a single billion, hiding under the surface as a wartime resistance movement, victims to an endless self-inflicted holocaust…this is a fascinating, if harrowing, premise for a big budget barn-stormer. The result was a dirge. Why?

Salvation’s greatest mistakes are three-fold: 1) ignoring the mythos and pre-established scenario and tone, depicting the post-apocalypse as just another bog-standard future war as opposed to a desperate daily fight for survival, 2) hiring a vision-less direction with no ideas to bring to the project other than recycling bored conventions and visuals from other blockbusters, and 3) opting for a plot as dull as ditchwater. It’s possible that executive wrangling and storytelling by committee were to blame, given Bale’s assertion during pre-production that he only joined the project out of creative ambition. Regardless, Salvation could have been distinctive and memorable sci-fi action in the hands of the right men, and not just a forgettable blot on Bale’s CV. At least, it should have been better than Terminator 3.

— Scott Patterson