By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 2, 2013 at 1:12PM
When you read the words "remake" or "reboot," what comes to mind? If you're optimistic, you can't wait to see an old-time favorite back up on the screen with a new Hollywood sheen. At worst, you're still shaking from flashbacks to the first time some hack bashed your childhood memories to a pulp. In either case, remakes are a mixed bag and should be taken with something between a grain and pound of salt, and the process of making one is a double-edged sword: the remake's task is to rework a tried and true concept without stepping on the original's toes or alienating its built-in fan base. Many have tried and fallen, less have risen again.
With "The Lone Ranger" galloping into theaters this holiday weekend (review here), a prime example of studio rehashing a tired premise (with a radio show, TV show and few movies already to its name) and a rumored remake of Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" starring Will Smith on its way (hopefully to be derailed by lackluster "After Earth" box office), we started thinking about other western reboots and where they stack up in the annals of cinema and entertainment. As we dug deeper, we uncovered some interesting stuff, most of it buried for a reason. You probably gathered that "Wild Wild West" was based off of the 1960s TV show "The Wild Wild West," but did you know "Destry Rides Again" was a loose remake of a 1932 B-film with the same name? Trivia aside, there’s still the elephant in the room, the question of whether the original or remake is better.
To settle the matter, we took a lead from the genre and paired the originals and remakes off to duke it out. Focusing on reboots rather than spin-offs or sequels, the old codgers and young guns face off below. Does your favorite western wind up in an unmarked grave? Or do you think some got off too lightly? After reading through all of the dueling stats, take your vengeance out in the comment section below.
"3:10 to Yuma" (1957) vs. "3:10 to Yuma" (2007)
The premise: A meek rancher is forced to align himself with a charming criminal when he is arrested and forced to board a train that all parties know is in the line of fire of the criminal's old gang...
The old codger: "3:10 To Yuma," which has earned it's placed in the National Registry, is a tight, taut thriller based on an Elmore Leonard short story.
The young gun: The remake of the same title boasts a sleek Hollywood studio sheen and a much healthier runtime, but stays true to the basics of the story, turning a threadbare narrative into a sprawling actioner.
Who won the draw? The original "3:10 To Yuma" draws first, and draws blood, nicking the newer film in the neck as his bullet fires mere inches from the original film’s head. It's a question of economy: the older film is a nervy, claustrophobic psycho-thriller of sorts, with Van Heflin as Dan Evans, the do-gooder who believes in the letter of the law, though tempted by Glenn Ford's snaky, seductive Ben Wade. James Mangold's reworking is a good half hour longer, but the difference seems to be in increased violence and more overt screenwriting tricks, like Evans needing to live up to the standards of his critical son. It's a bit tougher when it comes to the performances: while Christian Bale is a talented actor, he doesn't find the depth and goodness behind Evans that Heflin creates, but Russell Crowe's tremendously appealing, likable Wade gives the recent redo a more playful edge. Ultimately, the newer film is fitfully entertaining, but the Delmer Daves classic is ultimately unimpeachable. (Also, if you're an Elmore Leonard fan, check out our ranking of film adaptations of his work.)
"True Grit" (1969) vs. "True Grit" (2010)
The premise: A young girl seeks to avenge the death of her father by enlisting a dubious drunken lawman to deal out justice.
The old codger: Based on the Charles Portis novel, this oater starred a late-career John Wayne, who would claim his only Best Actor Oscar for the role of Rooster Cogburn.
The young gun: The knotty contemporary redo captures the essence of the original story, going back to the darkness of Portis' prose under the hand of the Coen Brothers.
Who won the draw? It seems as if this is one case where the young gun was savvy, dodging whizzing rounds to deliver one solid, middle-of-the-forehead killshot. The original "True Grit" is a decently-calibrated western that boasts an actual terrific performance from Wayne, though it is notably a light affair compared to the source material, more interested in showcasing Wayne's moviestar appeal. The Coens, however, smartly mined the book for the sadness and moral ambiguity within, centering the story on young Mattie Ross. Jeff Bridges and Wayne act themselves into a standstill as boozing Cogburn (though, in fairness, Bridges has much more to work with), but young Kim Darby is no match for Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld as the plucky heroine. Typical for them, the Coens don't eschew humor, instead providing a raucous viewing experience that nonetheless carries extremely dark edges, surprisingly helping the film gross $250 million worldwide.
"Ned Kelly" (1970) vs. "Ned Kelly" (2003)
The premise: Based on the life of notorious bushranger Ned Kelly, a young man turns to a life of crime in late 19th century Australia and becomes a national folk hero.
The old codger: Helmed by British New Wave director Tony Richardson, the slow-paced gritty-looking biopic stars a bearded Mick Jagger as the Australian outlaw and features a folky soundtrack including Jagger, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.
The young gun: Based on Robert Drewe’s historical novel "Our Sunshine," Heath Ledger (post-"blonde" roles, pre-"Brokeback Mountain") leads a gang of Irish Australians, including Orlando Bloom, to the chagrin of the Anglo-Australian Colonial Government, typified by Geoffrey Rush as the Superintendent called in to track down Kelly and his gang.
Who won the draw? Neither fared too well, both left the corral limping with the possibility of a third upstart shooting them down soon enough. The 1970 "Ned Kelly" was an all-out disaster, from Ian McKellan dropping out to the British crew's rough reception on-location in Australia to the end product being so bad that neither Richardson or Jagger attended its premiere in London. Now why shouldn't we concede victory to the 2003 "Ned Kelly"? Because if you couldn't tell by the description above, the later one was a dull-as-dishwater, predictable studio western, the main highlight being Ledger's as-of-then uncharacteristic performance. If we had our druthers, a third contender would rise from the ashes, combining the folk of the first and the epic action of the second.