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.
"A Fistful of Dollars" (1968, Sergio Leone, original 1961 "Yojimbo" directed by Akira Kurosawa)
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.
"Thieves Like Us" (1974, Robert Altman, from the original 1948 "They Live By Night" directed by Nicholas Ray)
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.
"Sorcerer" (1977, William Friedkin, from the original 1953 "The Wages of Fear" directed by Henri-George Clouzot)
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.
"The Thing" (1982, John Carpenter, from the original 1951 "The Thing From Another World" directed by Christian Nyby, but really it's Howard Hawks)
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.