Whether you measure your movies by box office, reviews, or popular appeal, Sony’s $125 million remake of the 1990 Ah-nuld Schwarzenegger interplanetary action fest Total Recall looks like a strike-out. The movie opened with a lethal softness; a $25.7 million first weekend meaning Recall won’t even come close to making back its budget during its domestic theatrical run. In fact, despite 22 years of ticket price increases, it’s doubtful the movie will even match the original’s $119.3 million haul.
And for those of you who think maybe the problem is Total Recall was outgunned opening while The Dark Knight Rises was still sucking up box office coin, entertain, at least for a moment if you will, the possibility the movie just plain sucks. According to Rotten Tomatoes’ canvas, almost 70% of reviewers – and over three-quarters of “top critics” – gave Total Recall a thumbs-down. Those who went to see the movie didn’t seem to care much for it either, with almost 45% panning the flick (again, according to Rotten Tomatoes). CinemaScore corroborates that general sense of viewers’ collective “Meh!” reporting an audience score of just C+.
It’s still early, but it looks like this one’s headed for the septic tank, gang.
All of which may be a bad omen for those remakes still in the wings:
This month’s $17 million remake of 1976’s Sparkle;
A $75 million remake of 1975’s Red Dawn for release later this year;
A $100 million remake of 1987’s Robocop, a $127 million remake of The Great Gatsby, as well as remakes of Carrie, Gambit, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and a possible remake of 1982’s Poltergeist, all in 2013;
Into 2014, look for remakes of Child’s Play, Annie, A Star Is Born, Pat Sematary, and The Crow, just to name a few.
And that’s just the headliners! Web site Next Movie lists 50 remakes running into 2014; web site Den of Geek lists 75!
For all of Hollywood’s investment in them, remakes – at least in today’s theatrical dynamic – don’t make much sense to me. Sequels I get: a movie hits big, and you exploit that opportunity by making another movie under the same brand…and then another…and then another…until people get tired of going to see them.
On the surface, I suppose there’s a simple sense to it: take a past success, and repeat it.
Remaking a movie from any time predating the current generation of young ticket-buyers doesn’t give the title much drawing power. Today’s young demo is about as intellectually connected to Hollywood’s past glories as they are to the historical lessons of the Spanish-American War (we fought Spain?). I remember teaching a film class last year where I mentioned that Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) was not the first Planet of the Apes movie. They were all mystified except one who – very proud of himself, I might add – said, “Oh, yeah! Tim Burton made one, didn’t he?”
But what typically kills a remake – besides the very contemporary mindset that simply redoing a movie in a bigger, splashier fashion somehow makes it better – is when the makers — …oh, what’s the phrase? Ahhh: when they “make it relevant to today’s audiences.” That’s Hollywood-speak for gutting the very elements which distinguished the original and replacing them with stuff that makes the remake look like all the other crap that’s out there at the moment.
Total Recall’s floundering, foundering performance provides us with an opening to talk about some other miscalculated, misconceived, and misbegotten remakes.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Some great remakes have been made.
These are not among them:
King Kong (1933). Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (uncredited). Written by: Cooper, James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, Edgar Wallace, and Leon Gordon (uncredited).
King Kong (1976). Directed by John Guillermin. Written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
King Kong (2005). Directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson.
Let’s get this out there at the top. The original King Kong is a great movie…but it’s not great movie-making. The acting from the human cast is hammy, there’s not much in the way of character (Fay Wray – the object of Kong’s affections – spends more screen time screaming than speaking), the dialogue pinballs between the clever (at Kong’s New York unveiling: “They say it’s some big gorilla.” “Oh, geez, ain’t we got enough of them in New York?”) to the cornball, there’s not much plot, and the movie’s treatment of supposedly South Seas natives is, at best, naively insensitive, and borderline racist at worst.
Yet, it works, and that’s part of the original’s magic. What it has going for it is the brute simplicity of a fairy tale, and taken as that, all of the movie’s components – from its overcooked acting to its gorilla/bleached blonde romance – seem of a piece. RKO’s back lot jungle isn’t a real jungle, but the kind of shadowy jungle of a child’s nightmare, and it’s mix-and-match monster menagerie – giant spiders, a 50-foot gorilla squaring off with prehistoric reptiles – make an odd sort of sense in that milieu.
So does Kong’s bizarre fascination with fainting-when-she-isn’t-shrieking Fay Wray. At the end of the movie, when Robert Armstrong stands over the dead Kong lamenting, “It was beauty killed the beast,” he’s summed up all of the once-upon-a-time qualities which keep the movie vital eight decades later.
The most fully-realized character in the movie is Kong; sympathetic without playing for sympathy. We feel for Kong as a defeated majesty when he’s taken from his native jungle, and then destroyed by his passion for screaming-meemie Wray, but Kong is a monster nevertheless. This is, after all, the beastie the natives have been offering local ladies to for some time (and it’s not like a night with Kong ends up like an episode of The Bachelorette). In his pursuit of Wray on his native island, he squishes, munches, and otherwise dispatches the terrified natives, and he’s just as unrestrained on the loose in New York, tearing up a subway train and tossing a woman pulled from her high rise bedroom to her death because she has the misfortune not to be Fay Wray.
You could do an entire column on what producer Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 remake got wrong (Rick Baker in a monkey suit as Kong but acting less like a monkey than a guy out for a stroll in the park; trying to turn King Kong into some kind of eco-parable – and that’s just for starters), but the most grievous was changing the brutish anti-hero of the original into a misunderstood pussycat. “Nobody cry when Jaws die,” Di Laurentiis’ had declared before the film’s release, “but they cry when Kong die!”
Well, audiences may have cried, but that was because those were 134 minutes they were never going to get back.
You have to give Peter Jackson credit: after seeing the cloying mess De Laurentiis had made of a classic, it took a lot of nerve to give it another shot. Jackson’s King Kong is a physically impressive film demonstrating the filmmaker’s absolute command of CGI effects and grand scale movie-making, but it still gets King Kong wrong.
Not unlike De Laurentiis, Jackson works too hard to make Kong a good guy, more a victim than a magnificent monster brought down by his foibles. Sentimental where the original was tough, substituting a child-like crush for animal passion, Jackson’s version is a gooey, soft-edged puffball that – in its dignified, seriously-minded, superbly produced way – doesn’t get any closer to the electricity of the original than De Laurentiis’ manipulative (attempted) tear-jerker.
Straw Dogs (1971). Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Written by David Zelag Goodman and Peckinpah. Adapted from Gordon Williams’ novel, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm.
Straw Dogs (2001). Written and directed by Rod Lurie.
Williams’ original novel was a worm-turns story about an American expatriate and his family besieged by brutish villagers when he shelters a child-killer who has escaped from his keepers. Peckinpah – intrigued by the writings of social anthropologist Robert Ardrey — and Goodman elevated Williams’ rather superficial story about Everyman’s capacity for violence to a more intellectually and morally complex story about primal territoriality. It was one of the director’s most controversial works and remains one of his most provocative.
Lurie – who publicly stated he didn’t think the Peckinpah original was all it was cracked up to be – nevertheless stayed close to Peckinah’s plotting, but turned the story into a simplistic, heavy-handed Blue Stater’s anti-Red State screed. Where Peckinpah’s protagonist – a milquetoasty mathematician come to England to avoid the social conflict sweeping across the U.S. in the early 1970s – finally asserts himself for no cause more elevated than a Neanderthalish defense of territory and property (including a wife who no longer loves him and whom he no longer loves), Lurie’s hero (and in Lurie’s version, he’s more clearly a hero) is a sensitive liberal fighting the good fight against a mob of narrow-minded rednecks.
Peckinpah turned out one of the signature films of the 1960s/70s. Lurie’s version came out less like a re-envisioning of Straw Dogs, than a re-visiting of the ham-handed politics of the Billy Jack flicks; a dog, indeed.
Godzilla (Gojira) (1954). Directed by Ishoro Honda. Written by Honda, Shigeru Kayama, and Takeo Murata.
Godzilla (1998). Directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by Dean Devlin, Emmerich, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio.
Spoiled by three decades of CGI effects, it can be hard — watching a guy in a rubber monster suit kicking hell out of a Tinker Toy city — to remember that the original Godzilla was a serious response by the only country every atomic bombed to an era of nuclear threat. Godzilla is a monster awakened by atomic tests, and ultimately destroyed by an even more devastating weapon so frightening in its capacity, that its inventor elects to be killed along with the monster so that the secret of his invention dies with him.
As chintzy as the original looks today, it still stands head and reptilian shoulders above Sony’s big budget ($130 million 1998 dollars), lobotmized remake.
Emmerich and his production partner Devlin had had such luck reviving the alien invasion movie with Independence Day (1996), there was no reason not to expect them to bring the same straight-faced-yet-fun approach to reviving the monster-on-the-loose genre. But for whatever reason, Emmerich and Devlin didn’t trust the audience; they went for a wink-wink-nudge-nudge jokey approach, creating an overly busy script (government conspiracies, a finale ripped off – badly – from Aliens), and then trying to steamroller their way to box office success with over-the-top CGI effects (I don’t know what was the ditziest sequence: Godzilla winning a duel with an atomic submarine in the Hudson River, or leaping in a surprise ambush to eat an Army helicopter in flight).
Looking at what director Matt Reeves and producer J.J. Abrams were able to do for the monster movie with Cloverfield (2008), you can appreciate all the more just how dumb the Godzilla remake is.
And hey, Roland, Dean – what did you do to the Godzilla roar?
The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). Directed by Robert Aldrich. Written by Lucas Heller. Based on the novel by Trevor Dudley Smith.
Flight of the Phoenix (2004). Directed by John Moore. Written by Scott Frank and Edward Burns.
The original is one of the great survival adventure films. A crew of oil workers and some visitors are flying out of the Saharan oil fields when their plane crash-lands in a sandstorm. Hardy Kruger is the prickly, abrasive engineer who claims a plane can be built from the wreckage to fly them to safety. James Stewart is the equally prickly veteran pilot locked in a juvenile who’s-the-boss-I’m-the-boss duel of egos with Kruger, each of them forgetting that their competing vanities could very well cost the lives of the other survivors.
The critical reception was overwhelmingly positive, but the public didn’t come. Flight did so badly at the box office, it sunk director Robert Aldrich’s production company (he wouldn’t rebound until 1967’s The Dirty Dozen). The movie may have been too bitter a pill for audiences to swallow.
Aldrich cut against the grain of the survival genre. Stuck in oven-baked emptiness, physically deteriorating under the constant bombardment of heat, wind, and sun, his characters don’t devolve into primitivism, but rather become more obsessive about their pettinesses; self-destructively so. Stewart – in one of his best late career performances – plays his grizzled age but against type as a hard-headed old-timer unwilling to cede his authority to or subordinate his experience to Kruger’s slide rule. Aldrich – a master hand at ensembles (i.e. The Dirty Dozen; The Longest Yard ) backs up Stewart and Kruger with a rich, deep bench of character players: Richard Attenborough, George Kennedy, Peter Finch, Ian Bannen (who copped a Supporting Actor Oscar nod), and Aldrich go-to player Ernest Borgnine among them.
But, as well thought of as Phoenix was, why remake a flop?
I can only think some not-so-bright exec thought, “Ya know, if we just change this and tweak that so it’s a less grim pic, we might have a winner here!”
They still wound up with a flop, but one that’s a lousier movie.
The resurrected Phoenix is blandly cast with Dennis Quaid, Mirando Otto in a pointless gender switch of Attenborough’s character, the usually intriguing Giovanni Ribisi replacing Hardy Kruger with a pile of ticks and mannerisms, and a rank of characterless muscle types in lieu of Aldrich’s battleship row of supporting players.
In the original, the survivors race against their dwindling water supply. Dehydrated and sunburned, they literally begin to physically come apart. The remake provides the survivors with ample water and food, and their “survival” doesn’t seem any more challenging than a few days at a fitness spa.
Without the grimness, desperation, and petty ego spats of the original (and I grant, they’re probably what kept people away in 1965), the remake doesn’t become a more appealing movie. It becomes a pointless one that never gets off the ground.
Charade (1963). Directed by Stanley Donen. Written by Peter Stone and Marc Behm.
The Truth About Charlie (2002). Directed by Jonathan Demme. Written by Demme, Steve Schmidt, and Jessica Bendiger.
The original – often called “the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made” – is a delightful confection, but a confection nonetheless. Its plot – three goons preying on a petite lovely as they try to find out where her dead husband hid a fortune in stolen gold — is an excuse to watch Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn charmingly flirt against as romantic a setting as charming flirts could want: Paris, fetchingly shot by cinematographer Charles Lang. There’s Henry Mancini’s alternately lovely/thrilling score, Peter Stone’s dazzlingly witty script, and a delicious rogues gallery of a supporting cast including Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass.
Stone’s script offers a pitch-perfect balance: romantic sparks between two of the most charismatic stars of the day, alternating with deepening mystery, plot twists and double-backs, and occasional bursts of violence. It’s a textbook example of how to “just entertain” without treating an audience like a collection of idiots.
But because Charade is so insubstantial (its plot doesn’t actually make a lot of sense), it’s a bit of a puzzlement why Demme – with meaty flicks like Something Wild (1986), Philadelphia (1993), and Silence of the Lambs (1991) – would want to take it on.
The bigger puzzlement is how a filmmaker of Demme’s caliber could so misinterpret the original. What had been a classy, slick bit of film fun becomes leaden and unnecessarily gritty. There’s cinematographer Tak Fujimoto’s gray, rainy Paris, a supporting cast too low in wattage (Tim Robbins, Ted Levine, Lisa Gay Hamilton, and Joong-Hoon) to provide the bright colors of the original’s second tier, and while Thandie Newton captures a lot of the beauty and fragility of Hepburn, Mark Wahlberg — … Well, great in The Departed (2006) and Boogie Nights (1997), but the guy’s no Cary Grant (granted: who is?).
Demme remakes a movie that was all about fun and charm with little of either.
The Thing from Another World (1951). Directed by Christian Nyby and an uncredited Howard Hawks. Written by Charles Lederer and an uncredited Hawks and Ben Hecht. Based on Joseph W. Campbell, Jr.’s novel, Who Goes There?
The Thing (1982). Directed by John Carpenter. Written by Bill Lancaster.
The Thing (2011). Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. Written by Eric Heisserer.
The original had novelty going for it. The idea of alien invasions was not only new, but plugged into still blossoming postwar Cold War paranoia. That aside, the plot of the original The Thing is quite simple and direct. An Arctic research team finds a crashed UFO, salvages one of its crew frozen in a block of ice, the alien gets free and in a plotline to be endlessly emulated over the next sixty-odd years, the alien monster tries to kill the humans, the humans try to kill the monster.
What makes The Thing a classic is its exceptional execution: a wonderful ensemble cast of solid B-listers (Kenneth Tobey, Robert Cornthwaite, Margaret Sheridan, et al), a brisk, firecracker style most attribute to producer Howard Hawks rather than titled director Nyby, and Lederer’s smart, sharp script (when one of Tobey’s men wonders if the alien can read minds, one of his comrades replies, “He’ll be real mad when he gets to me”).
I’d go so far as to say the characters in The Thing are so well etched – so utterly believable in an unbelievable circumstance – that they could easily have been dropped into a more realistic context (a war movie, say), and play just as well without any changes in the writing or performance.
Carpenter’s remake has quite a few devotees, and I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit to watching it every time it comes on. It’s got mood, it’s got suspense, and, thanks to cinematographer Dean Cundey, it’s got a nice, clean look. Like the original, Carpenter, too, puts together a strong ensemble of Familiar Faces behind lead Kurt Russell including Wilford Brimley, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart and others. And Lancaster’s script is actually closer to Campbell’s 1938 source material with its alien which recreates itself as any life form it chooses.
Impressive in their own right are the creature effects by Rob Bottin. Even in this CGI era, Bottin’s accomplishments through animatronics, puppetry, prosthetics, and make-up effects are still startling.
Yet the movie lacks something vital which the original had in abundance: heart. Too much of the movie seems an artifice: a research team that seems to do nothing but sit around bored witless waiting to be infiltrated by alien grotesques; an Antarctic research station with a well-stocked armory of flamethrowers, shotguns, and an endless supply of dynamite (what the hell kind of research are these guys doing?); characters who are barely characters, carried by the charisma of the cast but little in the script.
Example: Kurt Russell’s chopper pilot MacReady. We can tell he’s supposed to be a go-his-own-way maverick because he wears a sombrero in blizzards. That’s the movie’s idea of character.
All of that may be why the movie flopped. It’s highly watchable, technically impressive, the cast engaging, but it lacks the fun, the vibrancy, and the characters-we-care-about element that keeps the original a lively watch over a half-century later.
As for Heijningen’s version, the less said about it the better. Intended as a prequel to Carpenter’s movie, it nevertheless plays like a remake, with the actions of the Norwegian research team referred to in Carpenter’s flick generally playing out a scenario closely mirroring its predecessor. This Thing never finds its own, distinctive voice. Problem is Heijningen isn’t Howard Hawks or, for that matter, John Carpenter. His rendering is just another in a long line of pale alien-on-the-loose clones dating back to the original, and just as valueless.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Directed by Don Siegel. Written by Daniel Mainwaring, Richard Collins (uncredited). Based on Jack Finney’s novel.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Directed by Philip Kaufman. Written by W.D. Richter.
Body Snatchers (1993). Directed by Abel Ferrara. Written by Raymond Cistheri, Larry Cohen, Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli, Nicholas St. John.
The Invasion (2007). Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, James McTeigue (uncredited). Written by David Kajganich.
Siegel’s original sci fi classic was a little-noticed B movie at the time of its release, but whose stature steadily grew over the years: a tribute not only to the sharply intelligent and adult treatment Siegel & Co. gave their material, but to the deeply resonant subtext which still connects today.
The perceived meaning of Invasion’s story of pods from space which replicate humans as emotionless copies has swung from an interpretation as a warning against communist subversion to the other end of the political scale, viewed, instead as an anti-McCarthyist alarum. But Siegel himself has stated he was after something more universal; a sense of desensitization and alienation he saw infecting the American psyche of the 1950s.
Phil Kaufman’s remake is a film often cited as an example that the possibility of doing a good remake – hell, a great remake – is possible in the right hands. Kaufman shrewdly saw that the themes in Siegel’s version were even more relevant in the woefully dysfunctional America of the 1970s. Battered by a host of disillusionments starting with Vietnam and climaxing with Watergate, stuck in an unwavering recession and what ’70s pundits referred to as “a great malaise,” Kaufman saw the same disaffection and personal withdrawal Siegel and his gang had seen a generation earlier, only even more entrenched.
Like Siegel, Kaufman saw that the key to the story wasn’t its hook of replicating pods or even in punching up the story with a bigger budget and cooler effects. The story almost wholly relied on making the personal drama between its characters work, and, if anything, Kaufman’s version drives the often affecting drama home even more solidly than Siegel’s.
The same can’t be said for Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers. Despite a host of writers contributing to the project (or maybe because of them), Ferrara’s telling doesn’t seem to be about much. It’s the weakest kind of remake; taking the hook, but missing the point. Reset on an Army base, replacing the central love story (which wasn’t just the typical sci fi gratuitous romance, but the heart of a story about the loss of heart) with more mundane daughter/dad problems, there just doesn’t seem to be much going on either dramatically or emotionally. With a ’90s restlessness, the movie tips its hand so early, there’s none of that creeping paranoia which plays so well in both Siegel’s and Kaufman’s versions; a subtlety which, in those earlier films, cleverly blurs the line between alien cooption and all-too-earthly human failing.
Give Hirschbiegel and Kajganich this much; they work up a sweat trying to make their version about something. The movie reeks of an earnestness in trying – as Kaufman did in his time – to make the story relevant to the modern day. The script takes a nifty twist on the old story with the infectees (in this version, they’re not copies but controlled by an organism which invades the brain) making the point that their very lack of emotion can provide a more stable, peaceful, cooperative – in short, “better” – world. The provocative idea here is that our humanity is paradoxically demonstrated by our propensity for violence and chaos.
But despite that intriguing dramatic quirk, the movie comes off as slack and tired despite a lot of running around, and overly familiar. The philosophizing feels like lip service rather than – as Siegel and Kaufman were able to pull off – an integral, nay, critical element in their respective telling. The only message of import Hirschbiegel does successfully convey is that this is one story that’s been cloned way too many times.
Planet of the Apes (1968). Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Written by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson. Based on Pierre Boulle’s novel, Monkey Planet.
Planet of the Apes (2001). Directed by Tim Burton. Written by William Broyles, Jr., Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver.
Let’s do this one in reverse.
In Rise, James Franco’s well-meaning doctor gives chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis, master of motion-capture performing) a serum which makes him super-smart. Caesar gets treated badly by a nasty animal-keeper, bands together with a bunch of other apes he makes super-smart, and they lead an ape rebellion against humans. Moral: be kind to monkeys.
In Tim Burton’s version, astronaut Mark Wahlberg chases off after a super-smart monkey on a wayward space ship, through a wormhole, and winds up on a planet run by talking apes. Wahlberg eventually discovers this is the end result of a rebellion of super-smart monkeys left behind on his mother ship which crashed and spawned a planet of the apes. Moral: There probably is one but damned if I could see it. Maybe it’s don’t leave the keys to the space ship with supert-smart monkeys.
In the original, a deep space mission crashes on a planet where humans are mute beasts, and apes run the show. In one of the most iconic moments in American movies, surviving astronaut Charlton Heston discovers this ape world is actually what’s left of his home planet after nuclear self-destruction.
Ok, you tell me where the meat is.
Schaffner’s original was not only a scream of anti-nuke terror (in the 1960s, a very real and palpable fear; how afraid are you of a rebellion of super-smart monkeys?), but in its anti-heroic lead character – Heston’s condescending, arrogant, cynical, and dismissive astronaut Taylor – it captured all of the discontents and disillusionments of the 1960s. Taylor is not a curious scientist, nor noble adventurer. He signed on for this one-way mission out of no motive higher than the belief “…there has to be something better than man. Has to be.”
And that kind of dramatic heft makes the original better than its descendants. Has to be.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Directed by John Frankenheimer. Written by George Axelrod and Frankenheimer (uncredited). Based on the novel by Richard Condon.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004). Directed by Jonathan Demme. Written by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris.
Frankenheimer’s original has attained status as one of the all-time classic conspiracy thrillers. Although its context is firmly embedded in the East/West Cold War duel of the 1950s/1960s, what keeps Frankenheimer’s film relevant today is that the real core of the story is not the clever conspiracy by which an American Army officer captured by the North Koreans is brainwashed, re-manufactured as a hero, and then placed in a position to carry out the assassination of a presidential candidate. What drives the story – the ability of the conspirators to lay the groundwork for their plan – is the easy way fears on the left and right are exploited. In the original, those dirty commies are not the real enemy; as Pogo once famously taught us, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
In his second appearance on this list, Demme missteps the same way he misstepped on Charade, by mistaking the obvious for the valuable. His remake – not a badly made movie by any means – gloms on to the conspiracy aspects of the original Candidate, tries to contemporize the plot by turning the conspiracy into one of greedy corporations, but misses that essential element which is at the heart of the original; that the most potent weapons are enemies have are our own prejudices and paranoias. Our fears don’t turn us against our enemies, according to Frankenheimer, Axelrod, and Condon, but against ourselves.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Directed by Joseph Sergent. Written by Peter Stone. Adapted from the novel by John Godey.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009). Directed by Tony Scott. Written by Brian Helgeland.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1998). Directed by Felix Enriquez Alcala. Written by April Smith.
It’s said that it’s the fat that gives sausage its flavor, and that’s the case with the original Pelham. Despite the clever boldness of its plot – four armed men hijack a New York City subway car and hold its passengers for $1 million ransom – that’s not what makes the movie a 1970s favorite. Peter Stone – an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony-winner – uses Godey’s plot as an excuse to provide a mosaic portrait of 1970s New York in all its dysfunctional, chaotic, grimy, caustic glory (when rumpled Transit cop Walter Matthau asks fiery train master Dick O’Neill to remember the passengers whose lives are at stake, O’Neill replies, “What’d they expect for their lousy thirty-five cents; to live forever?”). New York is the real star of Sergent’s Pelham, and it’s a city performance which rates up there with Midnight Cowboy (1969) and The Naked City (1948).
Stone’s script is in good hands. Sergent, with the help of New York’s best cinematographer, Owen Roizman, the crisp cutting of Gerald Greenburg and Robert Lovett, and David Shire’s pulsing score, takes a static situation and turns it into a suspenseful barn-burner of a flick, as funny as it is suspenseful without sacrificing credibility. Great cinema? Probably not. Great entertainment? Easily.
And yet Pelham stiffed at the box office despite warm reviews. The movie only performed well, oddly enough – both domestically and abroad – in cities with subway systems.
That makes the decision to remake this commercial dud another one of those bits of indecipherable Hollywood (il)logic, even though all of the creative decisions behind the remake are typical Hollywood schlock-making.
Tony Scott has always been a director of visually lush, dramatically vapid pictures. This is the guy who made aerial warfare pretty in Top Gun (1986), did the same for NASCAR in Days of Thunder (1990), nuclear war in Crimson Tide (1995), espionage in Spy Game (2001), et al. He may have one of the best eyes for pictorial beauty in the business, but Scott wouldn’t know gritty if he fell in front of a street sweeper.
The original’s caper, while brazen, was fairly straightforward: four guys take over a subway car and demand money. Helgeland, on the other hand, piles one unnecessarily complicated complication on top of another. This time, the caper is part of some byzantine plot to manipulate gold prices, the gang leader – John Travolta as one of those giggling, smirking, showboating master villains Hollywood has come to love over the last 20-30 years (in the original, Robert Shaw played a low-key, brutally pragmatic ex-mercenary) – has a twisty history, as does the subway dispatcher (Denzel Washington) Travolta forges a connection with (another go-to gimmick Hollywood has been enamored with since the macabre pas de deux between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs ).
It’s a plot that’s three times as busy yet never as suspenseful as the original, and whose biggest crime is replacing all of Sergent’s/Stone’s & Co.’s New York flavor with an empty, colorless hodge-podge of Hollywood formulae.
As for the 1998 made-for-TV movie, it’s perhaps an even stronger demonstration of what made the original Pelham such a fun watch. The ’98 version stays fairly close to the plot of the original, but it fails to pass off a pristine Toronto subway system as New York’s, it’s blandly cast, slackly paced, and – like Tony Scott’s version – lacks any of that distinctive New York tang.
If you miss the first train, do yourself a favor and let these other two go by.
The Andromeda Strain (1971) v. The Andromeda Strain (2008).
The made-for-A&E remake turns Robert Wise’s smart, disturbingly credible adaptation of Michael Crichton’s equally credible story about a lethal organism from space into an overlong, under-produced numb-skulled conspiracy tale. The only strain here is the effort needed to watch the remake.
The Getaway (1972) v. The Getaway (1994).
The former was one of Sam Peckinpah’s dramatically slightest but possibly most fun actioners, but next to Roger Donaldson’s edgeless, colorless, remake, it plays like Mean Streets.
On the Beach (1959) v. On the Beach (2000).
Stanley Kramer presented the nuclear destruction of the world with a poignant grace. The bloated made-for-TV remake is nearly twice as long with less than half the heart or style. About halfway through, you wish the world would end a little sooner.
Rollerball (1975) v. Rollerball (2002).
Norman Jewison’s flawed but compelling story of a corporatized future where a brutal game is used to demonstrate the meaninglessness of the individual gets turned into a pedestrian number about sports fans’ bloodlust. WWE fans will be shocked.
Point Blank (1967) v. Payback (1999).
Remaker Brian Helgeland makes the mistake of thinking the meat of John Boorman’s ’60s classic is in its familiar plot about a ripped-off hood on a body-strewn quest for vengeance and his stolen money. It isn’t. The punch is in Boorman’s stylish telling set against West Coast antisepticism which wires into a creeping, corporate soullessness which has even taken the heart out of The Mob. No wonder Tony Soprano needed therapy.
The Longest Yard (1974) v. The Longest Yard (2005).
The former: Robert (The Dirty Dozen) Aldrich; Burt Reynolds at his peak. The latter: Peter (Tommy Boy) Segal; Adam Sandler who has never had a peak. That’s all you need to say. Blow the whistle, throw a flag, send Segal & Sandler to the showers.
– Bill Mesce