Monday, June 1, 2009
Remakes for Dummies
Look at those two pictures above. One is the villain from the 1974 thriller, The Taking of Pelham 123. The other is a picture of Grease star John Travolta if he were a motorcylist with a meth addiction. Actually, that's a pic of Travolta in Tony Scott's upcoming remake of "Pelham". Now, I hate to be thought of as someone who makes uninformed decisions or judges the book by the cover, but I think those two pictures encapsulate why so many people cringe reflexively when they hear the word "remake" and it's new euphemistic cousins "re-imagining" "revision" or "reboot."
I had never seen the original Pelham, and actually had never heard of it before reading an article on the new movie. The underlying premise (four men hijack a subway car, demanding $1million in ransom, while the police have no idea how they plan to get away with it) sounded interesting, and any movie with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw in it must have something going for it, so I recently watched it on TV. What I saw was a cool, off-kilter, understated but very suspenseful thriller. The script was crisp and captured perfectly the dialogue and inflection of New York City officials and citizens. At the heart of the movie was Matthau's gruff but competent transit police officer and Shaw's eerily calm killer. Their interactions for the large part take place over a radio, and the film's conclusion is rather less violent and action-packed than you'd expect.
Obviously I haven't seen the new version, but I'm not shy about saying that I don't think I will. The trailers I have seen and every article I've read about it lead me to think that this is just another case where they are going to take a good movie and jazz it up with more explosions, more CGI and less, you know, plot. I caught an article in Esquire wherein the writer watched both movies, and it basically boiled down to "Me like new film, more things go boom-boom. Not so much talky-talk." The writer goes to great pains to include the fact that he watched a dusty VHS tape of the original. ("Oh my God, it's so old, how could anybody like it!)
All of this brings me to my long-held view of remakes. Every time Hollywood does this they take a movie that was at least pretty good, if not great, and in 99 times out of 100 they make it worse, often significantly. Why don't they find movies that didn't work and try to make them better? This idea has clear advantages. For one thing no one would really be mad that they were remaking Howard the Duck or Battlefield Earth, and Hollywood would get a chance to right some of their more egregious mistakes. At any rate we as a society wouldn't be subjected to the farce that is sure to be Travolta in Robert Shaw's place.