Hollywood loves to cannibalize itself. Every summer, the studios plunder past glories with sequels, prequels, reboots—and remakes. The most shameless of those ruses is the remake, which makes a virtue of unoriginality. It begs the question: why remake a perfectly good movie? Usually the motive is crassly commercial—to reproduce a proven hit for an audience unaware of the original because it’s too old, too obscure, or in French. Sometimes a remake is an auteur’s arty homage, such as Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot facsimile of Psycho (1998)—or, more perversely, Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot American clone of his own German-language Funny Games.
Like sequels, remakes tend to be inferior to the originals. Prominent stinkers include star-driven vehicles like Swept Away (Madonna), Get Carter (Sly Stallone), The Nutty Professor (Eddie Murphy), Vanilla Sky and War of the Worlds (both with Tom Cruise). But some are classics in their own right—most famously The Wizard of Oz, which was a remake of a silent movie, and The Magnificent Seven, a western based on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Then there are the customized knock-offs of genre films by classy directors, like Brian De Palma’s Scarface, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
Most typically, however, a Hollywood remake is akin to urban gentrification—you jack up an old property and renovate it with a contemporary setting, bankable stars, state-of-the-art filmmaking techniques and a fresh coat of topical sentiment. That’s certainly the case with The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.
This thriller about the hijacking of a Manhattan subway car for a cash ransom is a seriously souped-up version of the 1974 original. Two movie stars, Denzel Washington and John Travolta, fill out the roles originally played by character actors Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. And that says a lot about the difference between the two films.
The original is a taut suspense drama shot by Joseph Sargent in the gritty realistic style of ’70s American cinema. The action virtually all takes place either in the subway tunnel or the dispatch centre. The remake, directed by Tony Scott (Crimson Tide), is a flashy, turbocharged thriller that hurtles along, well, like an express train, often bolting into a flat-out action movie. And while the basic plot still toggles between the subway and the control centre, as the police scramble to deliver the ransom money, Scott finds time to make squad cars turn triple Axels.
Aside from gratuitous spectacle, there’s a rationale for cranking up the adrenalin: New York has changed. In the original movie, the sleepy dispatch team takes forever to wake up to the implications that a train has been hijacked. The remake is set in paranoid, post-9/11 New York. So the entire police force springs into action, as viral rumours of terrorism make the stock market plunge.
The characters have also been bulked up. John Turturro coaches the hero as an NYPD hostage negotiator—a character that didn’t exist in the original. And James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) makes a meal of his role as the city’s tycoon mayor. As for the leads, Shaw’s villain was a cipher, while Travolta is a greatest-hits package of depravity—cackling psycho, bitter outcast, profane ex-con, Catholic avenger. And while Matthau was just a laconic transit cop, Washington is endowed with a virtual portfolio of subplot, as a transit executive who’s been demoted to dispatcher after being charged with taking a bribe in purchasing Japanese subway trains. Hauling their luxurious backstories like matching trailers, hero and villain face off with what seems like contractual symmetry.
So which movie is better? The original is more elegant, but the remake is more ferociously entertaining. Remakes like to up the ante. Canada’s Atom Egoyan has just shot Chloe, a version of a French erotic intrigue that promises to out-French the French by being more erotic than the original. And Werner Herzog is remaking Abel Ferrara’s The Bad Lieutenant. But it’s hard to imagine how he could make it any filthier than the original, whose director hasn’t exactly offered his blessing: “I wish these people die in hell,” said Ferrara. “I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.” Quentin Tarantino has a novel approach. He’s built a career on quoting other movies. But his Nazi-scalping epic, Inglourious Bastards, takes nothing from the original except the title, which he coyly misspells. Sometimes the best remake isn’t a remake at all.