By Adam-Troy Castro
Okay, a word of explanation before we begin.
This is the first installment of a monthly movie column that will more-or-less alternate between reviews of some of the more obscure fantasy and science fiction movies available on home video, and this feature, a regular look at genre stories that have been filmed more than once.
Some of you may already be aware that The Remake Chronicles was its own stand-alone blog that existed for a couple of years, and that a couple of dozen crackerjack essays on films that include the multiple versions of True Grit, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Poseidon Adventure, Psycho, Little Shop of Horrors and House of Wax can still be found there, awaiting your rapt perusal. If not, you’re aware of it as of this paragraph. That was painless. Go. Take a look. There”s some great stuff to be found.
Others of you may be like a lot of folks bitching about movies, in that you take the fallback position that remakes are a symptom of the movie industry’s creative bankruptcy and that they almost always suck, therefore must be loathed on general principle. We have seen a number of you adopt such absolutist positions. To you, remakes are war crimes, and are never acceptable under any circumstances; any filmmaker who attempts one is a hack.
We must report that film history doesn’t even come close to bearing this out.
Let’s talk about film classics, for a moment. Just undeniable classics, only. Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot was version number two. John Huston”s version of The Maltese Falcon was version number three. The version of The Wizard Of Oz that you’ve seen a million times, the one where Judy Garland sings “Over the Rainbow,” was merely the first time anybody came even close to getting the story close to right; the 1926 version with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man is horrible. The Hunchback Of Notre Dame was a film classic with both Lon Chaney and Charles Laughton, before it was made about a dozen additional times. Richard Lester’s definitive version of The Three Musketeers was something like the eighteenth. Les Miserables has been filmed dozens of times, and the most famous version without a singing Russell Crowe, the 1935 adaptation with Fredric March and Charles Laughton, isn’t even half as good as the French- language version from the previous year. We could go on.
Moreover, remakes can be interesting as both creative experiment and creative experiment. Some stories are re-invented multiple times, to varying effect. In forms both official and uncredited, Seven Samurai became a western, a space opera, an episode of Kung Fu, a Star Trek episode, an adventure of the Justice League, and a Pixar cartoon. It was only in its original form one of the five best movies ever made, but some of the subsequent versions were great fun. It can be instructive to see what tailoring it went through for each new permutation, and in how many ways the story retained, or sacrificed, its essential nature.
It can be equally interesting to see how a faithful remake that replays the original beat by beat can nevertheless completely miss the music. You’ve heard of Gus van Sant’s Psycho, but your friendly columnist’s favorite example of this particular phenomenon is Martin Ritt’s 1964 Outrage, which starred Paul Newman, Claire Bloom, Edward G. Robinson and William Shatner; aside from transplanting the action from medieval Japan to the old west, it was a well-meaning, beat-by-beat retelling of Akira Kursosawa’s 1950 classic Rashomon. The second film is so close to the first in intent that it is possible to track their similarities on a minute-by-minute basis, down to individual shots. And yet Kurosawa’s film is still one of the greatest movies ever made, and Ritt’s is almost impossible to sit through. Why is one so overwhelmingly powerful, and the other an almost unendurable? It can’t just be that Paul Newman is screen history’s least convincing Mexican bandit, ever. (Seriously. Try to picture it, and you can’t. And it’s even worse than that.) The failures are still more primal than that, and can be deeply instructive.
As Fantastic Stories of the Imagination is a science fiction venue, this incarnation of The Remake Chronicles will narrow its focus to fantasy, science fiction, and horror films, of which remakes and reboots are not exactly thin on the ground these days. We suspect that of the new stuff coming out, the majority of the new incarnations will fall short of any beloved memories we have. That’s okay. We’ll also be dealing with some classics as well.
It’s all about what works and what doesn’t, and why. And we start with a recent bomb based on a movie only ten years old, that despite putting the same screenwriters and one of the same stars in virtually the same story, didn’t quite work anymore.
District B-13 aka Banlieu 13 (2004). Directed by Pierre Morel. Written by Luc Besson and Bibi Naseri. Starring Cyril Raffaeli and David Belle. French. 84 minutes. ***
Brick Mansions (2014). Directed by Camille Delamarre. Written by Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri. Starring Paul Walker and David Belle. 90 minutes. * ½
In both movies, worsening economic divisions have led a major city, in the first case Paris and in the second Detroit, to wall off its most crime-ridden area and post guards at the checkpoints, to make sure the disadvantaged inhabitants stay in. One, a preternaturally agile guy named Leito in the first movie and Lino in the second (and played in both films by David Belle) busies himself picking fights with the local drug kingpin and his minions until, in the fullness of time, he must team up with a cop to find and defuse a neutron bomb that has found its way into his neighborhood.
I hate when that happens and I’m relieved that it doesn’t come up all that often in my own life.
Both movies are little more than excuses to showcase Belle’s mastery of the French acrobatic style he invented, known as parkour. He is a genuine phenomenon. Bouncing off walls, leaping from one rooftop to another, evading mobs of pursuers in narrow hallways, he is, on a physical level, as dazzling to watch as Buster Keaton or Jackie Chan, never more so when the camera pulls back and the film editors take a break and we get to appreciate just how much of what he seems to be doing, he actually is doing.
Nobody will ever confuse the first movie, which is a great showcase for his abilities, as a great work of cinematic art, but it is certainly a terrific highlight reel: if you will, a resume in movie form.
The second movie, telling almost the same story except stupider — which I would have bet you money could not have been done — is not nearly as impressive to the eye and, though only six minutes longer, feels interminable.
Why is this?
Well, before we get to the real problem, let’s examine some of the similarities and differences between the two versions.
Both films pit their protagonists against sizeable criminal gangs. The most objectionable of the changes has to do with what these gangs look like. The first is racially diverse; the second is almost all black. Granted that the Detroit setting of the second film supports the change — it still turns the tale into an exercise in two white guys beating up a lot of black guys, and the story is so fanciful anyway that this could have been avoided without any real worries about verisimilitude.
We move on. In both films, Leito/Lino out-and-out murders a repugnant cop who allows the drug kingpin to take malignant custody of someone he loves. In the first film, it’s his sister, in the second, his girlfriend. In both movies, his status as convicted cop killer is pretty much forgotten when it’s time for a happy fade-out where he can return to his home a free man. (I told you both films were dumb.)
In the first, Leito is tried and convicted off-screen, and doesn’t manage to escape and get back to his sister for six months. In that time, the drug kingpin has hooked her on smack and chained her up like a slave, abusing her for his amusement. The neutron bomb’s ticking clock, which is difficult to identify with, thus becomes secondary to worries that this once-feisty, now shattered, woman will commit suicide before Leito can get back to her. Given the nature of the story, it doesn’t provide much emotional heft, but it does provide some. In the second film, there are no indications that any substantial amount of time passes. Lino’s girlfriend is prisoner for what seems like a few hours, and her incarceration, involving some bloodless slapping-around by one of the drug kingpin’s henchwomen, is just a fight scene. This, to be sure, much less rapey. But also less involving and one less reason for suspense.
In its place, to accommodate a star better known in this hemisphere (the late Paul Walker), the story is shifted toward the super cop, Damien, who is here given some by-the-numbers backstory about how the same kingpin Lino is fighting is the very same one who killed his father, and blah blah blah.
There are a couple of problems with this.
First, Damien doesn’t really need that level of motivation, not in this story. It’s enough, in the first film, that he’s a tough cop who is drawn into Leito’s hyper-athletic war; the added backstory in the second brings him perilously close to being the main protagonist, and that would be all right if Paul Walker weren’t a star who requires much, much more in the realm of editing legerdemain to seem to be doing the same things that Cyril Raffaeli, a stunt veteran, did in the original.
More problems: the drug kingpin of the first film is endearingly incompetent. Sure, he kills his henchmen whenever they disappoint him, but it is made clear that this is not the most stable model for employee relations. His demise is at once a great joke and a terrific commentary on that particular narrative convention. The drug kingpin of the second film? Not only lives through it, but after committing acts that include multiple murders, extortion and attempted terrorism, reforms and runs for mayor, a development that neither of the heroes have any problem with. (Really.)
Both films are fables about the oppression about the economic underclass, but while both are about as deep about it as the dopiest comic book, the first film is considerably smarter about it. With regard to a plan to kill the millions of the walled-in ghetto, it invokes the Holocaust’s six million and trusts in the audience to get the reference. The second film? Isn’t even THAT smart. Is, in a number of respects, seriously dumber. Aggressively dumber.
Even that isn’t fatal. After all, both films are just excuses to put a couple of athletic guys through their paces, running and jumping and dodging and surviving against a far superior force in close quarters. The story, such as it is, is just an excuse to give us as many moments like that as it possibly can. Oh, there’s some political posturing and other overtones having to do with the economic divisions of our time, but let’s be honest: in this film, that’s just icing. You don’t have the dazzling acrobatics, and just enough of a story to care about them, you don’t have a movie.
It is therefore genuinely exciting in both films to see Belle do stuff like leap out windows, drop to lower balconies, vault alleyways, drop two stories and land in unfazed rolls, vault entire mobs of antagonists, swing on conveniently-dangling ropes, and so on.
It is as exciting as it is in the first film because, again, for the most part, it is all filmed in a manner that allows us to perceive that much of what we see Belle doing, is stuff he is actually doing. Oh, sure, he might not be doing it all in one great fifteen-minute chase, without tiring. But that is him leaping from one roof to another, shrugging off a two-story fall in the process, because we see it all in long shot, one stunt leading to another, and then another after that.
In short, the movie trusts in our willingness to be dazzled. There are a very few of the editing tricks that have made so many action movies almost unwatchable, over the last few years. We sometimes get a little burst of slow motion, or that far overused gimmick “bullet time,” just as Leito does something particularly amazing; we sometimes get a little fast-cut, to patch together two pieces of footage that were not filmed at the same time and in fact reflect two completely different stunts. But we don’t get a lot of it, and much of what we do get is filmed from a fair remove, providing us with that critical element of quality action filmmaking, spacial clarity.
Compare this to how so many of the same bits of business are handled in the remake. Take a critical moment when in order to escape gun-wielding thugs, Paul Walker’s Damien and Belle’s Lino must leap over an alley and land in a narrow window two stories below. One by one, each of these men takes a running leap, covering half the distance. We get the leap from another angle, captured in slow motion. We get yet another angle, imparting the same information. We get the end of the leap in yet another shot. Four shots to present us with one action. It is inherently distancing. It is inherently reassuring. It promises us that this is all just nonsense some editor put together and in fact might not even involve the actors at all. There is no reason to worry about it. Go back to sleep.
Brick Mansions is filled with this kind of stuff. When the two protagonists fight, as they do a couple of times, it is fun if we get to follow what’s happening, if we can see that they’re both showing an unlikely degree of skill, and if the editing scheme shows enough faith in our ability to stay focused that we get to see what’s happening without interruption. The original does use fast cuts and brief resorts to slow motion, but never at the expense of clarity, never in any way that underlines the action’s artificiality. The remake, filmed a mere ten years later and following a more vomitous movie-making aesthetic, attempts the same immediacy with shots the duration of eye-blinks, moments of particularly frenetic action filmed with spastically lurching shakicams, and constant, I mean it constant, descents into slow-motion bullet-time to call special attention to anything impressive the two leads might be doing.
It’s a sure-fire recipe for destroying wonder.
In short, here’s a rule of thumb: in principle, every new shot, every new editing trick, every camera motion, should provide the audience with unique additional information. Cut to a different angle and you better be telling us something else. Cut to a different angle to show us the same thing and you will putting layers of obfuscation between your story and your audience. In an era where CGI has given moviemakers the ability to show us anything that can be imagined, any movie not based on that tool really does need to move away from camera tricks and toward clarity, in order to avoid obliterating any emotional involvement the audience might have.
What are we left with? District B-13 is an exercise in how fun a great dumb story can be; Brick Mansions is by contrast an exercise in how gentle a nudge the material needs before it becomes intolerable. See the first. Avoid the second.
In The Remake Chronicles, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro examines the stories that movies keep returning to. This column will alternate with A-TC’s regular video recommendations.