Remakes that earn their keep
Some time ago, word went out in the land that Ethan Coen and Joel Coen would undertake a new version of True Grit. The brothers deemed the 1968 Charles Portis novel a great book and felt that many of its riches remained untapped by the 1969 film version. With No Country for Old Men as proof that the Coens know how to bring an estimable novel to the screen, we’re salivating to see their film. But why did some people start trashing the first True Grit movie as soon as they heard a new one was coming?
The first True Grit was an abundantly good film—and in 1969 its Old Hollywood classicism held its own alongside Sam Peckinpah’s radical, breakout work on The Wild Bunch. Why should it be a problem if we end up with two fine movies entitled True Grit, each with its own particular virtues? Instead, too often, we fall into the insidious pattern of talking about remakes—indeed, movies in general—as if it were a zero-sum game. Only one can survive. I like this movie, so let’s beat up on the other one until it gives up the title—literally. That’s just silly.
So saddle up old Bo—or Little Blackie, as the case may be—and ride the remake trail looking for multiple versions that are anything but redundant. There are quite a few, and some of them may surprise you.
We begin with a remake that got named best picture of its year—although Warner Bros. didn’t go out of their way to mention that Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) was based on an ultracrisp Hong Kong movie, Infernal Affairs (2002), which had revivified the played-out HK gangster genre. Both films tell the parallel, occasionally intersecting stories of two police detectives leading double lives: one (Andy Lau/Matt Damon) as a police department mole planted by a mob leader (Eric Tsang/Jack Nicholson), the other (Tony Leung Chiu Wai/Leonardo DiCaprio) as a longtime deep-cover operative posing as the mob leader’s righthand man. Some admirers prefer the Hong Kong movie, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak from a script by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, for telling its twisty tale in a whirlwind hour-and-40-minutes, whereas Scorsese took two-and-a-half hours. But Scorsese’s epic savors the history of the mob boss, the moles, and their (South Boston) community more deeply and is richer in atmosphere. It also offers a hogfeast of character-acting opportunities for Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone, et al., and arias of finely florid dialogue by William Monahan. Best of all, it has Vera Farmiga, mesmerizing as the police shrink who becomes the lover of both secret agents. And at the very least, its success freed us of the ritual obligation to bemoan, year after year, that Martin Scorsese had never won an Oscar.