This weekend, unless you have not yet seen Drive or have an all-consuming passion for the voice of Antonio Banderas emanating from the body of an animated orange cat, I would recommend that you stay on campus, save some money, and watch True Grit (2010) in a 35-millimeter print at Rose Hills Theater (Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.).
The box offices this weekend are full of derivative drivel. Johnny Depp reprises his role as a Hunter S. Thompson-style boozehound writer in his newest vehicle, The Rum Diary. While Depp’s wacky, drug-addled stylings might have held their appeal in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Rum Diary looks to be a watered-down, nostalgic, and slightly contrived prequel to the Gonzo years.
Speaking of prequels, The Thing—a tragically uninspired prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing—is worthy of neither your money nor any further mention in this column.
Paranormal Activity 3 is also happening and, since I know nothing of Paranormal Activity 1 or 2, I cannot pass informed judgment; however, my uninformed judgment tells me to stay far, far away.
The Three Musketeers is, by all accounts, one of the worst things ever to happen to Dumas’s story and Mars’s candy bar—a tragic fate for such a delightful and seemingly spoil-proof story.
On the opposite end of the spectrum of ruination is the Footloose: “This Is Our Time” remake of Footloose (1984): that Was Kevin Bacon’s Time. As an avowed lover of 1980s dance movies, it pains me to condemn either version of Footloose, but the original plot was so irredeemably cloying that I cannot bemoan its current downfall.
And finally, the spin-off that refuses to be ignored: Puss in Boots—because Shrek went through every narrative arc imaginable (and because Banderas’s voice is undeniably sexy, even as a cat).
Depressed yet? Ready to launch into a tirade about Hollywood’s lack of imagination and how every story worth telling has been told? Well, stop it! Remakes, sequels, and prequels—though often the worst—when combined with proper amounts of creativity, respect for the original text, and an understanding of the current cultural climate, can also turn out to be truly great products. In rare moments, these remakes can even improve on the original, translating a dated movie that, though appreciated among film buffs and scholars, has little appeal for modern audiences.
The Cohen brothers’ 2010 remake of True Grit with Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, and Matt Damon is such a film. The characters, plot, and a significant amount of the dialogue remain exactly the same as in the 1969 original starring John Wayne. Few, however, could argue that the Cohens should have left well enough alone. John Wayne was the spirit and icon of a certain time in America’s history and, though his image remains powerful, his brand of heroism rings simplistic and disingenuous in our postmodern era. Though Bridges and Wayne both play U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn as a lewd, fat, and violent old drunkard, there is never any doubt that Wayne’s Rooster will triumph in the end. With Bridges, however, there is more room for doubt. Though he is clearly not villainous and wants to help Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) find Tom Cheney—an outlaw who murdered Ross’s father—Bridge’s portrayal of as a washed-up old has-been too drunk to move or shoot is much more convincing than Wayne’s. After all, in Bridges we’re dealing with “the Dude” (The Big Lebowski), not Wayne’s Colonel Davy Crockett (The Alamo) or Sherriff John T. Chance (Rio Bravo).
The humor also works much better in the updated version. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf’s (Damon) added dialogue enhances his character, rendering him simultaneously more endearing and more laughable. There is also a scene with a “doctor” wrapped in a bearskin in the woods that is original to the remake and is one of my favorite moments. The oddity of this character, who has nothing to do with the plot, allows the viewer to step outside the western genre’s tropes and appreciate what a strange place the “wild west” must have been.
Joel and Ethan Cohen’s True Grit further demonstrates its propensity toward self-referential commentary on the western genre in its completely reimagined closing sequence. Unlike the original, which ends with a victorious Wayne jumping his new horse over a fence—proving that his age and girth in no way hinder his virility and control—the Bridges’s Rooster spends his final years as a part of a Wild West Show, drinking with old men and making money on fabricated acts of heroism and skill.
Though Mattie Ross’s character appears to remain the most similar to its original, Steinfeld manages to take out some of the shrill childishness of her predecessor while maintaining Ross’s brilliant combination of determination and naiveté. Whereas the 1969 True Grit ended with Ross perfectly assimilated back into her home life, content now that proper justice has been served, the 2010 ending offers no such easy comfort. Though not explicit, there is the sense that none of the characters were as well served by their dispensation of a violent justice as they believed they would be.
Give True Grit a shot. Though box office offerings like Puss in Boots and Footloose may give remakes a bad rap, some remakes can do a film justice.