Spike Lee wants to make one thing clear: his “Oldboy” is not a remake of the notorious 2003 film by Park Chan-wook. This is his interpretation on the source material, a manga by Nobuaki Minegishi. I can see his point, but the fact is that most of us stateside have no connection with the original source. It was Park’s visceral trip that first hooked us a decade ago and Spike’s film will be seen in light of that cinematic gut-punch.
What makes it all more interesting is that Spike is a filmmaker with a defining style and a distinctive sensibility that defines every one of his films. Even “Inside Man,” by all accounts a work-for-hire project, is charged by his take on race, justice, and politics and his complicated affection for New York City.
A lot of Americans will head to “Oldboy” to see what the buzz all about. Some will grudgingly want to measure it to the film that lit up their cerebral cortex a decade ago. I’m interested to see what Spike has in mind for the anger, the torment, and the insanity of vengeance inherent in the material. Anyone can helm a remake but it takes an artist to reshape the raw material of one movie into a work that is unmistakably theirs.
Here are ten artists that did just that. I don’t claim these to be the greatest remakes ever, but they all have one thing in common: directors with distinctive visions and styles who give their twice-told tales a singular identity.
The original mercenary samurai classic was both a cynical take on Japanese samurai honor and a swipe at American westerns. Sergio Leone replaces the swords with six-guns and rifles, ramps up the savagery and sadism, and carves a pitiless vision of the parched desert frontier across the widescreen with stark figures caked in dust and sweat and stubble. All without changing the plot. Or getting the film rights. The film was a smash, Toho successfully sued, and Leone launched a magnificent career.
Nicholas Ray’s take on Edward Anderson’s novel, shot in shadowy black and white, plays the story of doomed love on the run as American tragedy. Robert Altman’s film is more folk song than film noir, an answer to the mythmaking of “Bonnie and Clyde” shot in the bright light of day with outlaws as crude, dim, all-too-vulnerable figures. Yet Altman has nothing but affection for his oblivious young lovers (Keith Carradine and Shelly Duvall) and their fumbling courtship and inarticulate romance amidst the brutality and betrayal around them.
Hot off “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” William Friedkin used his clout to make this existential odyssey of four outlaws on a suicide mission: drive unstable nitroglycerine over 300 miles of South American jungle roads. Clouzot’s original is a grueling road movie-as-survival thriller. Friedkin’s film, shot in woozy, hallucinatory color, is a haunting mix of precision action-movie mechanics and vision quest journey. It flopped on release but an upcoming restoration should give us all a chance to reassess Friedkin’s personal favorite film.
“Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht” (1979, Werner Herzog, from the original 1922 film directed by F.W. Murnau)
F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” recreates the famous bloodsucker as a feral ghoul. After decades of vampire movies with more familiar capes and fangs and darkly seductive leads, Werner Herzog returned to the original vampire masterpiece and cast madman and megalomaniac star Klaus Kinski as the gargoylish bloodsucker. Kinski’s pained, lonely eyes give the ghoul a melancholy dimension and Isabelle Adjani’s dark eyes and alabaster skin give her the look of death’s bride, while the chalky whites and murky midnight colors offer a very Herzogian portrait of a misty mythic Germany.
John Carpenter’s devotion to directorial spirit guide Howard Hawks didn’t stop him from reaching back to the source novel, resulting in a remake that reconceptualizes the Hawks classic. That bouncy Hawks camaraderie is present in the ensemble of grizzled men at an isolated Antarctic research station, but where the Hawks team pulls together to defeat an enemy from without, Carpenter’s men are beset by mistrust and paranoia as they fight an alien that comes from within. Like a snow-blind “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” with mutant transformations out of a David Cronenberg nightmare.
“Scarface” (1983, Brian De Palma, from the original 1932 film directed by Howard Hawks)
Another remake / update / reimagining of a Hawks classic, Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” relocates the iconic rise and fall crime opera from the tommy-gun gangster battles of the prohibition era to the cocaine wars of Florida in the eighties. De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone carved out a blood-drenched thug opera, a mix of the graceful and the garish that redefined a generation of gangster cinema and rap culture, with Al Pacino’s guttural thug-in-a-suit spitting out dialogue like broken glass in a harsh Cuban accent and snorting small mountains of cocaine.
“The Fly” (1986, directed by David Cronenberg, from the original 1953 film directed by Kurt Neumann)
The original “The Fly” is less a classic than a memorable piece of fifties sci-fisploitation monster movie with a thread of madness. David Cronenberg keeps the matter transfer device and genetic swap but otherwise remakes the film from the ground up in his own image, turning the physical mutation of scientist Jeff Goldblum into a twisted beauty and the beast story. Goldblum charts the ecstasy and the agony of a man in mutating into a monster, part evolution and part designer disease, in a classic Cronenberg marriage of flesh and technology as modern body horror.
The first Hollywood blockbuster based on a low budget experimental short film, “12 Monkeys” takes little more than the premise and theme of Chris Marker’s “La Jetee,” a first-person tale of time travel and obsession and haunting memory. Bruce Willis is the jittery, unstable agent from the devastated future, hopscotching through the pre-plague era to trace the origins of the apocalypse. In this method lays madness, which is familiar territory for director Terry Gilliam. He weaves the mind games and time travel conundrums of this millennial disaster movie with a mad poetry.
“Insomnia” (2002, Christopher Nolan, from the original 1997 film directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg)
Between his breakthrough hit “Memento” and his blockbuster smash “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan helmed the American remake of the icy, sun-bright 1997 Norwegian noir, a murder mystery in the 24-hour daylight of the far north in summer. Al Pacino plays the L.A. cop in Alaska kept awake by the rays blasting through his hotel window, a visual scream that burns through to his conscience. Nolan shifts the moral ground from the snowballing moral corruption of the original to shades of guilt and accountability and Pacino’s increasingly bleary and hallucinatory perspective becomes an evocative metaphor for his struggle.
Martin Scorsese’s Boston-accented reworking of the slick Hong Kong crime thriller from directing team Andrew Lau and Alan Mak wasn’t Scorsese’s first time at the remake rodeo – he made the very dark noir-drenched thriller “Cape Fear” even darker – but this one was a natural for the director of “Goodfellas” and “Gangs of New York.” He turns the clever cat-and-mouse story of two rival informants scrambling to save themselves from discovery into a star-studded mob opera spiked with grimy underworld detail and juiced with adrenaline and suspicion. It became Scorsese’s biggest hit and earned him his first Academy Award.