By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 21, 2013 at 4:25PM
This week, the Vince Vaughn vehicle “Delivery Man” hits theaters (our review here). While on the surface it may seem of a type with recent paternity comedies like “The Change-Up” and “The Switch,” it does feature one rogue element (aside from not starring Jason Bateman): it’s a remake of a French-language Canadian comedy called “Starbuck” that's also directed by the original’s director, Ken Scott. It’s easy to see how the festival success of "Starbuck," strong national box office and gentle high concept (a commitment-shy frequent sperm donor discovers he’s fathered over 500 children, a large segment of whom now want to meet him), might have put it on the remake list immediately. Indeed there are currently two other versions in the works—a Bollywood one and a French picture—but the choice to offer the directorial chair to Scott for the U.S. version is a little more unusual.
Of course Scott is hardly the first director to remake his own material and he doubtless won’t be the last. And in this case, the opportunity to have control over the remake of his breakout film, along with the chance to launch a potential Hollywood career and to work with a higher profile cast and a bigger budget, all make it seem like an understandable decision from his point of view, while DreamWorks are clearly hoping to bottle lightning by giving him the keys to the remake. Of course there are various different motives for a director wishing to remake his work: aside from simple financial reasons, occasionally a filmmaker really wants a second go at a story they feel they didn’t do justice to, or which has aged poorly, or which new technologies could help tell better. And from the studio’s standpoint, if they’re already involved in the risk-averse game of remaking a film that’s proven successful, why not double down by hiring the original director too?
But there are no guarantees. For every director who’s gone back to an old well and emerged refreshed and spruced up, there are four or five who’ve fallen victim to the standard law of diminishing returns on remakes, and in what we have to believe must be even more demoralizing fashion than if the material had at least been new to them—surely the tedium of spending another two years working on a story you’ve already spent years developing, filming, and the selling has to get to some of them. Here we’ve selected ten directors who’ve played the dangerous game of remaking their own films to see who triumphed, who stumbled and who provided the best counter-arguments to auteur theory by misfiring on their second go-round.
"L.A. Takedown” (1989)/"Heat" (1995)
Synopsis: A successful career criminal considers getting out of the business after one last score, while an obsessive cop desperately tries to put him behind bars.
Why The Remake? Michael Mann had originally envisioned this crime drama to be much more involved, complex and sprawling. “L.A. Takedown” is like the nuts and bolts “Heat” story minus the character subplots and the various interpersonal moving parts orbiting the main showdown of cop vs. criminal. Some will argue this is what bloats “Heat” in the first place, but its elaborate tapestry and rich character texture are what makes “Heat” such a masterful portrait of the criminal mind and its opposite. So we peer into the thought processes of those who fight crime for a living and those who don’t know how to live except by criminal means, and get a glimpse of the opposing codes they abide by, and why they’re driven to pursue their respective aims in the first place.
Similarities/Differences: It’s remarkable how similar the remake is, some lines are essentially ripped straight from the original or at least, are very much in the spirit of basic lines and monologues. Some scenes are eerily similar even when they’re shot differently and are clearly rewritten. Take the scene in “Heat” where Robert De Niro slams Waingro’s (Kevin Gage) head into the diner table for fucking up their first heist and killing cops that didn’t need to die. In “L.A. Takedown,” no one gets hurt (at least not until the strikingly similar parking lot scene), but the sentiment and spirit of the scene is exactly the same: Waingro screwed up, so he’s out of the crew for good with full contempt given for his lack of professionalism. Watching the scenes side by side, you get an incredible filmmaking lesson in how Mann can take the same idea, refine it, finesse it and turn it into something much more masterful with just a few key adjustments. This is what rewriting is all about. And like many Mann movies, both films are also preoccupied with the cool, alienating and beautiful allure of Los Angeles (a brief tiny cameo from the then not-exposed, still-vital, quintessential L.A. band Jane’s Addiction in the original shows the director knew what time it was too). Probably the most significant change in the remake is the ending. The villain still goes after Waingro the rat in the original, but what transpires after is very different. Considering you probably haven’t seen it, we’ll leave it for you to track down (it’s not hard, try Google), cause it’s still an interesting curio, especially if you’re a big “Heat”/Michael Mann fan (which you should be).
Which is Better & Why? Take a wild guess. Scott Plank and Alex McArthur (who??) as the two leads vs Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. The original cast had supporting help from Michael Rooker, Laura Harrington and Daniel Baldwin, while the remake had Tom Sizemore, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, William Fichtner, Amy Brenneman, Danny Trejo, Dennis Haysbert, Natalie Portman and a host of other talented character actors (Ted Levine being one of the best). There’s just absolutely no competition and to watch Pacino rip through some of Mann’s monologues vs. Plank is like listening to a Stradivarius concerto next to a bumpkin fiddler. And kudos to Mann for recognizing this material was A-grade and worth another go with stronger talent. And for extra credit: Nerds like us will notice some L.A. locations from ‘Takedown’ used in “The Dark Knight Rises” and if it feels like there are similarities in that opening heist, well you can bet Christopher Nolan’s probably watched everything Mann has ever made. "L.A. Takedown” [B-], “Heat” [A]
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934)/"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956)
Synopsis: A vacationing family become embroiled in a political assassination plot when a murdered holiday acquaintance turns out to have been a spy and confides details of the plot to them in his dying breath. However they are constrained from alerting the authorities by the kidnap of their child.
Why the Remake? Apparently Hitch, in his later halcyon period, was always a little insecure when he looked back on his British films, and he confided to Francois Truffaut that his first go-round at this plot he later regarded as merely “the work of a talented amateur.” With peerless classics like “Notorious” and “Rear Window” already under his belt, Hitchcock re-pitched this remake (he’d first toyed with an American remake back in 1941, which would have made it one of his first U.S. pictures) as the film that could fulfill his contractual obligations to Paramount. The studio agreed that the story would work if updated, and reportedly Hitchcock banned the new screenwriter from watching the original, instead verbally communicating to him the essence of the plot and the scenes he wanted to recreate.
Similarities/Differences? While there’s no mistaking the films share a plot, and the climactic Albert Hall sequence is almost shot-for-shot in both, the much longer, '50s technicolor version differs from the original in its locations (Morocco provides a more interesting backdrop for the family vacation than Switzerland), and in certain key details like the sex of the child; which parent hears the dying man’s secret and who is the target of the assassination plot. Also, of course, the central family is American rather than British, and with Doris Day’s character an ex-singer, room is made in the remake for a few renditions of the film’s Oscar-winning song “Que Sera Sera” as well as for slightly more sympathetic policemen and authority figures, instead of the shockingly callous stiff-upper-lip types in the first. Other than that, some of the fun of comparing these films is in noting how some of the kinks translate: in each a clue that is in fact a place name is mistaken for a person’s name; Hitch’s signature cameo appears at different junctures in each, and both times, rather unsatisfyingly, it is the heroine’s scream that deflects the assassin’s attention just enough so that he wounds, rather than kills his target. Factoid: the remake features frequent collaborator Bernard Herrmann conducting the Albert Hall orchestra. Which was actually shot on a replica set on the Paramount lot.
Which is Better & Why? While “talented amateur” might be going a bit far, there’s no mistaking that the earlier film is the work of a far less experienced director, and tonally the shifts between suspense and light humor work far better in the remake, especially with Stewart and the surprisingly successful casting of Day, in a rare “serious” role, as the central couple: both actors manage the transitions from darkness to light better than their earlier counterparts Leslie Banks and Edna Best. That said, the portrait of the marriage in the 30s films does start off beguilingly witty, with a kind of “Thin Man” sophistication to their banter, before the plot mechanics kick in in earnest.And the 30s version does boast one notable ace up its sleeve in the form of an excellent Peter Lorre performance—creepy and ingratiating but not yet quite the caricature version. And while the original simply doesn’t boast the same confidence with details and shotmaking that Hitchcock had acquired by the time of the remake, the sense of peril that he’s much better at achieving in the 50s version is somewhat dulled by that film’s overlength—something you can’t accuse the 75-minute original of. When we get right down to it, neither film is in the top tier of Hitchcock movies; the aforementioned happenstance of the climactic shooting is one slightly disappointing feature, and with the protagonists being apparently comfortably married, there’s not the same kind of flinty, sparky relationship that makes such an appealing sub-theme in so many of his classics. In fact, the central couple, especially as played by Stewart and Day are so essentially wholesome that they register as rather bland, so that, as glossy and well-shot and gloriously technicolor as it the remake is, it’s still not as sexy as the Master at his best. "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934) [C+], "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956) [B-]
"Ju-on: The Grudge" (2002)/"The Grudge" (2004)
Synopsis: A house in which a man murdered his wife and child becomes infested with apparitions of the dead family, and everyone who comes into contact with them is haunted to their eventual death.
Why the Remake? With the remake of “The Ring” performing above expectations, suddenly, J-horror remakes were a thing, and “Ju-on” was eyed as a potential rival/successor franchise by producer Sam Raimi. Shimizu was initially reluctant (indeed, he seems to have been trying to shake off the ‘Ju-on’ legacy ever since he made it) but was convinced by the assurances that the producers wanted to retain the film’s Japanese setting, the original’s malevolence, and that he’d be able to continue to work with a predominately Japanese crew.
Similarities/Differences? The remake is significantly different from the original, in terms of the shape of the narrative, for one thing. While ‘Ju-on’ is a series of seemingly randomly shuffled non-chronological chapters, in which the central character of one may crop up only as a passing presence or a voice on an answering machine in another, the Hollywood version is arranged in a more nuclear manner. So the central woman, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, is much more of a continuing presence, and indeed, the later film feels more like ‘her story’ than the story of the grudge itself. Still, the remake also uses a fractured, non-linear approach, though to a lesser degree, while switching around the characters to enable that most “Hollywood version” of elements—a romance subplot—to suggest itself. The design of the apparitions themselves is also different, slicker and more inherently evil-looking in the remake, where the original varied from the seemingly innocuous, to the um, what? (dodgy smoke monster thingie with red eyes), to the unintentionally funny (sorry, but when the little boy shows up with the poorly applied eyeliner…). In fact the remake invests more time in making us understand the hierarchy between the different supernatural aspects, making the ghost of the murdered wife into the central malevolent force, and giving Buffy a more active role in piecing together what happened and how to fight back, than any of the characters in the original are afforded. Oh, and we’ll give you one guess as to which version has a character surviving beyond the end credits...
Which is Better & Why? Fun fact: “Ju-on: The Grudge” was in fact director Shimizu’s third installment in the ‘Ju-on’ series, with the previous two being direct-to-video hits. Which is perhaps why the Japanese film feels so disjointed and scattershot—it’s not so much that its logic is confused, as it really just doesn’t have any underlying logic. So there’s no real telling how or when or why a particular ghost will manifest itself, why it has chosen this victim, and why now, where can it go etc. Basically the film never establishes the rules of the grudge, and this, coupled with the jagged, non-chronological narrative, is probably what gave the original some of its power back in the day, especially to Western audiences used to approaching ghost stories as essentially problems to be worked through and solved. But the issue with it now is that it comes across as a series of skits, all of which—especially white-skinned, black-eyed female with hair straggling over her face—we’ve become hugely familiar with to the point of parody in the years since. And yes, it’s a ghost cat, but that doesn’t make the original’s over-reliance on the “it’s only a cat!” trope any less irritating.The remake has its fair share of these problems too, of course, but maybe because we’re culturally programmed in that direction, its a more coherent narrative and deeper (albeit cliché) characterization, actually stands the test of time a bit better. But we have to confess to finding neither film particularly scary, with the occasional inventiveness of the first version often counteracted by unclear storytelling, while the slicker American remake feels like it has too many of the rough edges smoothed down. Damned either way, really—as you can probably tell, we’re not huge fans of either, though ‘The Grudge’‘s huge $187m take off a $10m budget does make us take a breath."Ju-on: The Grudge" (2002) [C], "The Grudge" (2004) [C]