There has been a trend in movies recently of remakes and reboots of franchises. Some of these are venerable franchises that never really ended but whose sequels have reduced either in quality or earning power (such as the Friday 13th series or James Bond films). Others are old forgotten relics, or classic but dated movies, producers feel need an upgrade or update in order to take an old idea and make it fresh, or to squeeze a little more cash without having to contract new stories from new writers and new creators. The idea of the remake or films from books, plays, or other media is as old as film itself. Recently, however there has been a rash of remakes and reboots of films, some good, some great, some better than the originals; some bad, some worse, some insults to already shaky reputations of cult classic films.
For the purposes of this discussion a remake will be any film that takes the story of an original film, its characters, and its basic plot development and creates a newer version. Sometimes with new plot twists, new dynamics, and almost always new actors, recent films have shown studios’ willingness to remake very old films as well as rather recent ones with sometimes shocking regularity. The difference between a remake and a reboot can get muddied in modern cinema, but for our purposes we will try and stick to direct remakes in this section and analyze more obvious reboots in the next.
The Perfect Remake
There are effective ways to do a remake and still make a terrific film, sometimes building on the ideas of the original film, honoring it, or playing off of it. A remake should never insult the original, demean it, or claim itself in any of its scenes or actions to be superior to it. It should remember its place; it is not an original idea and owes its very existence to a film that preceded it. One of the finest remakes in cinema history launched two of the most influential personalities in cinema: Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. Leone’s spaghetti western version of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars, created the template for the perfect direct remake. It took the story from the original, took most of the major characters, the plot, the tone, and the message, and created a whole new film for a whole new audience. Though Yojimbo would find itself made and remade again in TV and in film (such as the MUCH less successful Bruce Willis remake Last Man Standing), only Fistful seemed to get it right. Kurosawa’s original was a violent farce, mocking and revering the western genre as a whole. It was darkly funny and delightfully cynical, containing broad caricatures of typical western stereotypes at the same time destroying the idea of the white-hat hero and single-handily creating the anti-hero for popular culture. Leone’s version (made without the permission of Kurosawa but using the idea and much of the script whole cloth) embodies many of the same principles. Eastwood is perfect as the laconic western gunslinger every bit as much as Toshiro Mifune was perfect as the jaded nameless samurai sword master. Wild, operatic action takes place in both, the anti-hero’s only weakness is displayed when he helps others (the message seemingly conveyed: never help others…), and a climax between evil and not-so-evil leaves the audience satisfied with the conclusion. Comparing the remakes, Fistful contained the same wry wit, delivered in Eastwood’s characteristic monotone. Eastwood, like Mifune, was the ultimate good-bad-guy (or bad-good-guy, depending on one’s perspective); largely free of morality and selflessness, he is out to destroy the system as a whole by having it destroy itself rather than through direct action of his own. His mind and wit are as deadly as his gun and he revels in watching the fools around him flounder like puppets on strings. It honors the original’s feel and mood; it doesn’t simply take the premise and put it in a new location. Last Man Standing plays it more straight. It is hardly amusing, the lead character has none of the dark humor and plays more like an avenging angel of death than a wry, clever puppet master using his craftiness over his propensity for violence. This change shows a trend in remakes as they get further and further from the original, or in more contemporary versions: simplification. The characters in Yojimbo are complex and multifaceted. Even when they are broad to the point of silliness, few of the characters are ever just one thing; the bold anti-hero who cares little for the world…still risks his entire plot to save a woman and return her to her family. The wealthy sake brewer who runs one of the ruthless gangs is madly in love with the woman who was freed. One of the characters idiotic younger brother is not only a vicious fighter but also has a fear of ghosts. Little character pieces that make, even these cartoonish portrayals, alive and memorable. The characters in Fistful of Dollars are just as memorable, as is the climax sequence displaying the lead character’s cleverness rather than just his ability to dispense violence. Both were successful at telling the same story with the same mood and the remake honored the original by copying its mood, style, and characters.
Perhaps the Leone classic is an unfair remake to begin with as it is in many ways the perfect remake. It had skilled performers and crews who knew exactly what would transfer over into the change in scenery and what wouldn’t, and it created its own mythology and branching stories. In fact, it was so successful at retelling Kurosawa’s original film it spawned two sequels entirely unrelated to the source film, the second of which is widely considered to be the best, For a Few Dollars More and the legendary The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Clint Eastwood would go on to play the clever anti-hero character pioneered by Mifune not only in Man With No Name films of Leone, but also in other films like The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter, and even the farcical Two Mules for Sister Sara. Few remakes can claim such a pedigree, and it shows the genius of not only the filmmakers involved in the remake, but the excellence of the source film’s creators and storytelling.