Warren Cantrell (who spun off his love of writing Top 10s into his own website, 10rant) returns to Scene-Stealers! If you have an idea for a Top 10, email me at email@example.com. Here’s Warren:
With the new versions of “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Robin Hood” upon us, I thought it was time to tackle a particularly troubling elephant in the room. To take an existing idea, especially one that has already been made into a movie, and alter it for re-consumption is a tempting thought, and one that has obviously occurred to more than a few Hollywood stooges. Indeed, what was once a good idea can often find legs again in a lazy market, and if executed skillfully, that which previously made a buck could easily do so again.
This is a very hard trick to pull off, and many who have attempted to accomplish the maneuver have fallen hard upon critics and audiences who have little patience for an offering lacking in originality. Audiences (and especially critics) have a low tolerance for perceived slights, and being sold an existing product with new packaging is usually enough to get people feeling as if they’ve been duped. Generally speaking, if you can’t even get people into the theaters for lack of enthusiasm, the prospects of your film and its success are dim to say the least. Thus, a filmmaker faces a daunting hurdle when trying to make a picture out of an existing one, for they not only have to fight expectation arising from the original, but they must also combat the weariness of a savvy movie-going public that knows better than to shop based on title alone.
So let’s jump right in, shall we? I’m tossing out a few caveats. First, I’m not including foreign-to-American re-do’s, or vice-versa, as that’s less of a “remake” and more of a cinematic translation. Besides, that’s a list all to itself (and the 10rant needs the fodder) so today we’re sticking with straight remakes. Second, by remake, I mean film-to-film recycling, not television or comic/cartoon reinventions, so all you “Josie and the Pussycats” fans can stop griping right now. Finally, I’m excluding franchise reboots like the new Batman, James Bond, and “Star Trek” films, which aren’t exactly remakes, but rather exercises in re-imagining a concept. Aside from this, I only mention a few films as a close contenders. First is Mr. Jackson’s recent remake of “King Kong.” Though an exceptional picture, it’s hard to argue with the classics, and while I enjoyed the hell out of the 2003 version, to say it was “better” is like telling one child that you love it more than another, so I respectfully abstain from that argument. Though close calls, I had to exclude “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Scent of a Woman,” for while they were both admirable remakes, they weren’t quite as good as the original (though close). Now, with that out of the way, I give to you Top 10 Remakes Better Than the Original Movie.
10. Evil Dead 2 (1987)
I’m willing to engage any purists in an argument over whether or not this film was a remake, but short of the great Sam Raimi or Bruce Campbell chiming in to give a definitive answer, I’m sticking with my choice for number 10. While this might technically be a sequel, this film never really explained why Ash went back to the same isolated, deeply disturbed cabin to re-live his first experience with black magic. Though the plot changed slightly between installments, the basic structure of the movie remained the same: boy and girl go to the woods, evil words are spoken, demons rise up, boy must combat the possessed bodies of other victims using daring and a chainsaw. “Evil Dead 2″ just barely made the cut, and not because of concerns over whether or not it was an actual remake, but because the first movie was so wickedly awesome. Full credit should be given to Raimi and Campbell for taking it up a notch, however, for in their reimagining of the original, they upped the ante as it concerned blood, gore, action, effects, and wackiness. The gags were funnier, the mutilations more gruesome, and the scope of the project far more grandiose. And though these guys could have rested on the laurels of a campy, slapstick horror comedy for the ages, they went ahead and reinvested in an awesome idea, giving the world a more refined, polished, exceptional piece of filth. Kudos, gentlemen.
9. Brewster’s Millions (1985)
I love this movie, and have for quite some time. It was a safe flick that my mom could throw in the VCR on a lazy Saturday, what with the lack of “Robocop”-level violence and “D.C. Cab”-level tit-flashes. In a household where the two breadwinners worked on plumber and public school teacher salaries, the fantasy of NEEDING to spend $30 million dollars in a month was a welcome dream, and this picture was a most welcome distraction. I’ve seen the 1945 picture (also titled “Brewster’s Millions” and itself a remake), and though I can only confirm through wiki, it would appear that these two films are among the seven versions of this picture that exist! There’s obviously something inside all of us that yearns to run around the world like a kid in a candy store, spending in a wild fashion that not only demands excess, but treats it like an art form. In this picture, spending money became a creative art, and I don’t know a person who would pass up on giving that hobby an honest try. While the 1945 version had its charms, among them the hilarity of a recently discharged WWII African American flashing more money and prestige than the whites watching in drop-jawed astonishment could ever hope to see, the 1985 version is the best of the bunch. With Richard Pryor at its core, the picture was elevated from throwaway absurdist humor to almost-intelligent satire. In the end, the story re-tells an all-too-familiar fable which assures its audience that money can’t buy happiness, far from it: wealth usually just makes things worse. Despite lavish parties, insane living arrangements and spontaneous purchases, what really matters was the presence of good friends and an honest heart to match. Besides that, the movie is fun as shit! Who wouldn’t want to rent out the penthouse of New York’s finest hotel, hire the Yankees for an exhibition game, and buy an antique stamp just to mail the fucker? It’s this kind of commitment to opulence and style that got this next film, our number eight entrant, remade. This next movie also pulled off the seemingly impossible: it upped the coolness factor for a movie that originally starred the Rat Pack.
8. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
I think this one surprised everybody a little bit, as there wasn’t a lot of expectation for a film stacked with star-power and directed by a guy (Soderbergh) who unapologetically admits that he pads his bottom line with a series of safe-daring-safe-daring pictures. About nine years ago, it seemed entirely reasonable that the film was to be little more than an excuse to get a bunch of Hollywood A-listers together for a little partying in the desert while they “worked” on a film for a few weeks. It turned out that while the second, dreadful installment was just that (except trade Las Vegas for Amsterdam), the first was actually a refreshing, well-acted, wonderfully executed picture with an enticing plot and slick moves from beginning to end. Soderbergh used the foundation of the Rat Pack’s original premise as a springboard to uncage Brad Pitt and George Clooney’s natural onscreen charisma, the stable of wildly over-qualified support staff all seemingly content to fill in the gaps of a picture that used each to pitch-perfect potential. Instead of a mere four magic players as was the case in the original, this picture gave each of the eleven thieves enough space to flex their various acting muscles, and Julia Roberts and Andy Garcia rounding out the ensemble with class to spare. As is usually the case, the direction was superb, each scene that unfolded presented with the delicate balance between action, levity, and suspense maintained at every turn. As is the case with the next film, it’s not that this remake was so much better than the original, it’s just that the quality of the newer picture was made all the more obvious when taken in context of the strides made to distance the newest version from expectation. Ocean’s Eleven (2001) was its own picture, and was brave enough to embrace this, a lesson no doubt learned from…
7. The Bounty (1984)
I’ll stand up for the guy in almost any situation, but to hell with Brando’s performance in the 1962 version of this film. Granted, that was a remake of the 1935 and 1916 films of the same name, but even those crusty, largely archaic pictures had more piss and vinegar in them than pre-fat-Marlon’s attempt. In the most recent incarnation, you had a young Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins going head-to-head in a movie that took each character seriously, and explored the motivations of two similar men with completely different souls. The tale is a maritime legend, and is almost certainly not going anywhere so long as movies are still being made. It involves mutiny on a Royal vessel on the high seas, thousands of miles away from home port and in a manner that served to ignite the imaginations of any number of men who have been out to sea for extended periods of time under the watch of a stern captain. Though films that have retold this story have often sided with either the Captain (Hopkins’ Bligh) or the First Mate (Gibson’s Christian) this film did a remarkable thing: it lent credence to neither. By filling in the motivations and histories of both men, and allowing the audience witness to the divergence between them, the movie left judgment in the hands of its audience, and did justice to a tale no living man or woman could possibly understand in full. Anchored by solid performances by its two leads (as well as a healthy supporting cast which included a very dirty Liam Neeson and an easy-to-miss Daniel Day-Lewis), this movie explored Christian’s motivations while keeping Bligh’s obligations as Captain well within sight. And while it could have become lost in a murky soup of morality and character study, the picture never lost sight of the fascinating story at its center. At the end of the day, Bligh sailed a shit-load of miles in a dinghy with little more than a compass and his English resolve while his rebellious First Mate broke ranks and sailed a stolen ship back to paradise. And as for Fletcher Christian, the ambiguity of his journey remained intact: some mysteries juicy enough to be left alone, and given to the scribes of a future not at all finished with this lurid tale.
6. Cape Fear (1991)
Okay, I’ll grant you the obvious: the original was pretty frickin’ sweet. No doubt about that, let’s just be clear. Robert Mitchum was a stone-cold pimp, and there will be no argument about that fact (yes, fact) in this article. But if ever there was a guy to step into an epic role, and make it his own, it’s Robert fucking De Niro. Hell, if he can take the thunder out of Brando’s hands with a reimagining of Vito Corleone, what the hell can’t this guy do? Now, just to set the record straight, and to make sure there is no confusion, Robert De Niro is as close to acting royalty as it gets in my opinion. Sure, the guy has a few questionable roles on his resume, but who hasn’t had a bad day, or even week? I may have slighted Scorcese a bit in my critique of “The Departed,” but that should in no way imply that I have anything against De Niro (especially since he wasn’t in “The Departed”). In his hijacking of the Max Cady role, Mr. De Niro did what most would have thought impossible: he took an established, supremely regarded performance, already legendary for its gruff intensity, and kicked it right in the balls. If Mitchum was scary, then DeNiro was straight Satanic. As psychologically terrifying as he is physically imposing (and physically, he still gives me nightmares), it is Cady’s relentless unkillability that really pushed this one over the edge of belief. More a force of nature than a man, De Niro’s performance catapulted this picture from quaint remake to epic, pants-shitting brilliance. Nolte’s increasingly unhinged attorney complimented the slowly-closing circle that threatened to suffocate the man and his family in carefully plotted retribution. Maybe it was because this film gave the audience so much more of Cady than in the original that it frightened us all the more: insanity understood and perhaps even sympathized with more unsettling than the shapeless villain stalking us through the night.
5. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
I include this one both because it deserves a solid slot in the ranking, and to bring attention to the fact that this film was indeed a remake (of 1964′s “Bedtime Story”), which makes its success all the more impressive. Though one would think Marlon Brando and David Niven would be a tough act to follow, the 1988 remake did pretty damn good in Steve Martin and Michael Caine. The plots are fairly similar: a small-time grifter specializing in rapid-fire gigs gets schooled in the long con by an older, wiser operator. After a bit of schooling, the younger protégé decided that he’d had enough humiliating “training” and challenged the master (Caine’s Lawrence) to a grift-duel. A fresh mark appeared in the form of a younger, wealthy woman and the two resolved to declare the winner of her con the king of the French town they both worked. Love, greed, revenge, and deception followed, and at the end of the day, everyone got screwed but still persevered. While Brando and Niven did a reasonable job with the material in the 60s, the unchained avarice and filth of the 80s lent a particular air of viciousness to the remake that was only further enhanced by the picture’s two leads. Martin and Caine’s exchanges were crisp and ruthless, augmented further by the cruelty of their deception (the most outstanding of which involved Martin’s alter-ego Ruprecht). The updated setting and the charisma of both leads set the 1988 version apart from the original, which was admirable in approach, yet incomplete in execution. Certainly, however, this can’t be said for the next entrant, which holds up as an exceptional remake if only because the original was so damn cool as well…
4. The Fly (1986)
What the hell, Cronenberg? I mean, shit! You took a somewhat creepy, albeit campy 50s horror classic and shot the thing full of steroids and meth. Once mildly disturbing, you turned this horror staple into an unholy nightmare from which there is no escape or shelter, because once a fella’s seen Jeff Goldblume puke-eat and tear the fingernails off his hands, there’s no going back. Actually, I don’t know why I’m giving you such a hard time, this movie is tits. You directed one hell of a scary horror picture, David, and you reinvented a classic sub-genre so definitively that few have dared trod down the path you rediscovered. Hell, more than that, you re-paved that shit! Nobody was doing human-to-creature transformations in the mid-80s outside of Michael Jackson videos and B-level camp, and there weren’t a lot of people who had the balls to go there afterwards, due in large part to the terrific standard set with this devilishly good remake. By weaving a complex narrative involving a twisted medical experiment gone wrong with a subtext about the inescapable pains of aging, you frightened both on the surface and well beneath it. Nothing creeps an audience out like force-feeding them a man sloughing off huge chunks of flesh on the way to full insect transmutation! Though a little violent at times, it was quality not quantity that drove this movie, and all props should be given to the man behind the camera. Besides the barroom arm-break and the finale that saw the mighty Stathis lose an arm and foot to regurgitated Brundlefly enzymes, most of the creep was in the more natural effects associated with the fly transformation. Mr. Cronenberg, while I reserve the right to name “Dead Ringers” as your most unsettling picture (twisted gynecology movies far creepier than anything that can be done with prosthetics), I gladly concede that in your remake of “The Fly,” you touched upon a nerve that most don’t dare tickle.
3. The Thing (1982)
A retooling of the 1951 movie “The Thing From Another World,” John Carpenter’s seminal work is so far beyond the original that it’s almost unfair to call this a remake. Released against another alien picture with a slightly rosier view of extraterrestrial life-forms, it’s a shame that “E.T.” went ahead and stole all the wind out of this movie’s sails. Yes, sometimes in “the biz” you get shafted, and when it comes to a release date against “E.T.” along with another little movie called “Blade Runner,” there’s not much more to say except, maybe, “ah hell!” But that’s okay. This movie found all sorts of love in home release, and has since earned its deserved reputation as a horror classic. Carpenter mainstays Kurt Russell and Keith David led an inspired cast that included a mighty supporting turn by Mr. Diabetes himself (Wilford Brimley). After learning that an assimilating alien life-form had awoken from an icy slumber to gobble up whatever life it could get its creepy paws on, Russell and his crew got to work sorting out just who was legit and who was a filthy imposter, all manner of dog and scientist getting incinerated in the flaming holocaust that ensued. Sweet-ass spider creatures and spacecrafts-in-construction followed, as well as a hand-to-hand fight that involved dynamite as an active weapon, something I’d like to see a lot more of in films these days. In the end, the research station was destroyed and the two survivors (Russell and David) shared one last bitter drink, embracing the almost certain fate to befall two men suffering at the cold, alien-infested, asshole-end of the world. They just didn’t make ‘em this hard back in the day, the need for re-tooling almost obvious in retrospect. When released, this film was derided for unnecessary violence, profanity, and gore: in the intervening years, all of these criticisms have since been lauded as fantastic technical achievements. For another film that only got its proper credit in the years after its release, I ask that you turn to the runner-up picture, one that tore the handles off its predecessor…
2. Scarface (1983)
The original film might seem like a stark departure from this re-imagined 1983 Oliver Stone-Brian De Palma offering, yet at its heart, both movies told the same story. This was the story of America simultaneously at its best and worst. This picture, in either incarnation, talked about everything that one can achieve in a country that promises the world, but also of what can become of the man or woman ill-suited (or tempered) for the responsibilities that accompany such a dramatic rise. While the United States does indeed promise success to all, the sad truth is that many are not ready for such rewards, and will never be in a position to responsibly handle such power. In America, that’s okay, though. In this country we don’t ask what you’re going to do with the world once you have it, we only ask if you’ve got balls enough to take it. Both Al Pacino and original Scarface Paul Muni answered that call in the affirmative, and both versions showed what can become of a man with all the ambition needed to rise to the top, yet none of the intelligence to stay there. Director De Palma did a clever thing when he remade the 1932 classic, for he saw the potential in the very recent Mariel Boatlift and how promise and opportunity in this country crossed all cultural and temporal bounds. Though most of the honest, white, middle-class assholes that railed against this movie would hate to admit it, the story of Tony Montana and the Cubans that descended on Florida in the early 1980s was the same one their own ancestors had told in Northeastern Irish and Italian slums less than a hundred years before. Credit should be given to the 1983 remake for boldly taking on a film that was pretty damn good to begin with, and blowing it completely out of the water, both in the scope of its message and in the execution of the delivery. Besides being a poignant film about ambition and success in the United States, it’s a gorgeous picture with delicious performances and arresting visuals, and a true testament to how one can build upon an existing premise and take it to an entirely new level. And speaking of that…
1. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
A tale of redemption and the fine line between good and evil, this film was outstanding in every possible regard. A remake of the somewhat stale, though inspired 1957 film of the same name, Elmore Leonard’s short story from 1953 only just recently got the justice so greedily withheld over the course of 50 cruel years. More centered around themes of greed and social injustice than the original, the remake did what most westerns fear: they rooted the story in the uninspired dregs of Western American history. At its core, the movie was about a man battling for water rights in a region and era that was rife with instances of independent operators smothered by larger corporate concerns. Christian Bale’s Evans started the picture in a dispute with the local landowning powerbase, fronted by the Hollander character, who flatly refused to grant Bale’s farmer and father character an extension on his land payments, siding instead with the railroads passing through the region. This set in motion a series of events that would drive the plot forward (Evans agreeing to escort Crowe’s villain character Ben Wade because of Evans’ desperate financial situation). The film unfolded brilliantly from there, Russell Crowe’s development and execution of his performance both exciting and terrifying. Coy and unassuming at times, though always hinting at the coiled viper beneath the smile, Crowe’s role enveloped the entire picture with an unending scent of danger. Bale’s character was no less powerful, though perhaps a bit more complex. Again, the film went for a more difficult angle, incorporating the more realistic aspects of the universe in which it operated by giving the Evans character a far more likely back-story for his Civil War injury. A hell of a lot more men returned from war with injuries related to disease and friendly-fire than those born in glorious combat, something that likely wore at the already fragile psyches of veterans unable to cope with wounds less heroic than that so loudly celebrated. The passing of fifty years allowed for the action in this remake to be far more vigorous than the original, the scenes involving the Apaches and anything involving Wade’s lieutenant Prince especially sweet. Supporting turns from Alan Tudyk and an especially grizzled Peter Fonda rounded out an already spectacular picture replete with cracking cinematography, dialogue, and direction. If you slept on this one a few years ago, go out and give it a shot, as you’ll be hard pressed to argue against this if the subject of the best cinematic remake ever comes up in conversation at a party.