In his 1996 review of Cop Land, Roger Ebert wrote that a reader once asked him “why they only remake the good movies, not bad ones. Good films don’t require remaking… but what about ‘promising concepts which were poorly executed for one reason or another?’” It’s a question we ask ourselves every time Hollywood decides to remake a perfectly good movie. This week, for example, we have the big-budget, Colin Farrell-fronted remake of Total Recall, a perfectly good Schwarzenegger/Verhoeven picture from 1990 that marries Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” to the boom-crash action aesthetic of the period, and which stands up just fine these days, thank you very much.
But Ebert and his reader might be on to something — if the suits are going to insist on spending all of their time and money developing remakes, why not remake some movies that didn’t turn out so well, and try to get them right this time? Or better yet, good movies that no one saw, so you’re not doing the original any damage by taking a chance on a copy? With those parameters in mind, we put together this list of movies we frankly wouldn’t mind seeing remade; check it out after the jump, and contribute yours in the comments.
The experience of watching this 1988 movie is a bit depressing, considering how good you’d think it’d be: it’s written and directed by Robert Towne, the great screenwriter of Chinatown, Shampoo, and The Last Detail; it’s got a sexy love triangle between Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Kurt Russell; and the supporting cast includes such MVPs as Raul Julia and J.T. Walsh. But the trouble is, the movie itself is just so… ’80s. The DNA of Miami Vice is all over the film stylistically, and the centerpiece musical track of its soundtrack is “Surrender to Me,” which, y’know, good luck getting out of your brain now. Towne’s script is a good one (his almost always are), but the film itself ages very badly — a fresh take could certainly work (maybe with Towne giving the script a fresh pass?), with, say, Tom Hardy, Angelina Jolie, and Mark Wahlberg taking over?
Toward the tail end of the original, early-‘90s, post-Burton-Batman superhero movie boom, Hollywood was reaching way back into its vaults for ideas, which resulted in big-screen vehicles for several lesser-known heroes, such as The Phantom, The Rocketeer, and The Shadow, who dated back to the 1930s. Originating in a series of pulp magazine stories, the character became best known via the radio drama starring Orson Welles, who played Lamont Cranston, the Bruce Wayne-esque millionaire who was secretly the Shadow, an avenger with the ability to “cloud men’s minds.” The 1994 film version was a bust, however; in spite of the perfect casting of Alec Baldwin in the leading role, the direction (by Russell Mulcahy, who directed the first Highlander film and absolutely nothing worth a damn after it) is turgid, and the screenplay (by Spielberg favorite David Koepp) is a witless mess. However, now that Captain America proved that a period superhero can work, the time may be right for some brave soul to take another crack at The Shadow.
The Sting is a film occasionally floated as remake material, and whoever thinks that’s a good idea should be socked firmly across the jaw. You’ll never touch the tonal perfection of that con man comedy, of its airtight screenplay, of the flawless chemistry between Paul Newman and Robert Redford. What we would consider, however, is a remake of any of the many Sting imitators: Harry and Walter Go to New York, say, or Harlem Nights, or, especially, the 1975 fiasco The Fortune. It should have been a big hit: Mike Nichols in the director’s chair, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson in the leads as ‘20s con artists, Stockard Channing as their mark, a screenplay by Carole Eastman (Five Easy Pieces). But that last element was actually the project’s undoing: Eastman, though a great writer, had a notorious problem with both overwriting and finishing her scripts (Towne had the same reputation), and her unfinished script for The Fortune reportedly ran 240 pages when the film was going into pre-production. (Screenplays average about a page a minute, so your typical two-hour film has a script of about half that length.) Nichols never quite figured out how to dig the right movie out of there, but here’s the thing: The Fortune has its charms, and its central premise (two scam artists trying to take a millionaire heiress, and contemplating murder when they fail to do so) is rich with comic possibility. In fact, it’s somewhat reminiscent now of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels — itself a remake of the 1964 film Bedtime Story — so maybe a Fortune remake would prevent the inevitable Scoundrels one.
Talk to a Michael Crichton fan — and there are plenty of them — and you’ll find that many cite as their favorite of his novels not blockbusters Jurassic Park or The Andromeda Strain, but his 1987 book Sphere, which concerns a team of scientists exploring a spacecraft on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It’s easy to see why there’s such affection for it among its fans; it transitions smoothly from science fiction to human drama, and its ending is a whopper. After Jurassic Park made Crichton books popular fodder for the big screen in 1993, a film adaptation of Sphere seemed inevitable, but the results were… well, less than ideal. Dustin Hoffman was rather miscast in the lead; director Barry Levinson, though skilled at dialogue comedy and character drama, seemed lost dealing with the sci-fi and effects elements; and in spite of the efforts of three screenwriters, none could find a way to manifest the book’s high-minded themes without sounding silly. But we’d argue that there’s still a great movie to made from Sphere, if there’s a writer/director out there with the skill to marry big ideas with big effects. What’s Chris Nolan up to next?
Seems Like Old Times
If you had HBO in the early ‘80s, chances are you’ve seen Seems Like Old Times. Chances are, in fact, that you’ve seen it many, many times — it was one of the handful of movies the nascent network had in its regular rotation, and they were not worried about overexposure. So this writer’s memories of the movie are fond; Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn, and Charles Grodin are all at their comic peak, and the neo-screwball premise (innocent man, wrongly accused, hides out in the home of his ex-wife, under the nose of her new, district attorney husband) offers up some rich comic possibilities. But Neil Simon’s screenplay too often goes for the easy one-liner — as much of his later work did — and prolific TV director Jay Sandrich’s work is rather flat and listless. Get one of the Apatow crew to give this one a punch-up, and you’re back in business.
When the insipid “found footage” “comedy” of the same name opened earlier this year, we’ll admit to a fleeting moment of interest — not in that project, but in the idea of a remake of the 1987 Matthew-Broderick-saves-the-chimps film (or, as it’s classified on Wikipedia, “a 1987 American comedy-science fiction-thriller film.” How’s that for cross-pollination?). Jonathan Kaplan’s film concerned a secret government program to test the effects of radiation poisoning on flight-simulating chimpanzees. It’s a pretty good little movie (with Broderick and Helen Hunt at their most late-‘80s charming), but an update could be very interesting, what with all the government paranoia and PETA-fueled (and anti-PETA-fueled) animal rights talk in the culture these days.
There’s a pretty good chance you’ve never heard of S*P*Y*S, the 1974 Donald Sutherland/Elliot Gould spy comedy with the nonsense title created solely to tie it to their previous blockbuster pairing, M*A*S*H. And it’s okay if you haven’t; it’s not terribly good. As succinctly summarized by Peter Hanson at the invaluable Every ‘70s Movie blog, this comedy from director Irvin Kershner (whose best known credit is The Empire Strikes Back, not exactly a laugh riot) is “a dull, inept, noisy espionage caper that wastes the talents of everyone involved”; despite the European locations and banter of its likable stars, Hanson notes, “nothing clicks.” But it’s got a promising plotline, in which the stars play secret agents stationed in Europe who, targeted for assassination, team up to sell their cache of government secrets for quick cash. (Walter Matthau made Hopscotch, a far more entertaining riff on the same general idea, a few years later for director Ronald Neame.) A new script and stars with the right rhythm and chemistry — Clooney and Pitt, maybe? — and this one could be worth watching.
The Silent Partner
Gould again, but in contrast to the previous films on this list, there’s actually not one thing wrong with The Silent Partner. It’s a perfect little ‘70s crime picture, with a wonderful sad-sack-turned-man-of-action leading turn by Gould and a chilling supporting performance by Christopher Plummer, as well as a neat (and airtight) plot and some crackerjack suspense. Here’s the rub: no one’s seen it. Shot in Canada to take advantage of the country’s new tax breaks for locally-produced films, it did well there but sunk without a trace in the States, and though it’s a favorite of ‘70s cinephiles, it has yet to attain the cult audience it deserves. But what’s great about remakes, even subpar ones, is that they inevitably send people hunting down the original (the spike in popularity for the original 1974 Taking of Pelham One Two Three following Tony Scott’s lackluster rehash springs to mind). So go ahead, Hollywood, make a Silent Partner — put Ashton Kutcher in it, for all we care. Whatever it takes to get people aware of the original is fine with us.
I Love You to Death
Here’s another gem that most people have forgotten: Lawrence Kasdan’s 1990 black comedy, based on the true story of an unhappy wife’s multiple attempts to bump off her philandering husband. She engages her mother, her friend, and ultimately a pair of zonked-out hitmen to help do the deed, but the guy’s like some kind of slasher movie killer who simply won’t die; Kasdan and his ace cast (Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman, River Phoenix, Joan Plowright, William Hurt, and Keanu Reeves) get more laughs out of the dark story than you’d think, and the Hurt/Reeves stoned-killer combo are a particular comic highlight (you can see the DNA of Brad Pitt’s True Romance character in them). But the movie was swallowed up at the box office when it was released in April 1990 by the twin powerhouses of Pretty Woman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; even Ernest Goes to Jail outgrossed it on its opening weekend. (That’s gotta sting.) But we like to think this one was just ahead of its time; in this post-Pulp Fiction cinematic landscape, there’s more room for black comedy, and a remake of this firecracker would barely even have to update John Kostmayer’s fine screenplay.
George Barr McCutcheon’s 1902 novel is no stranger to the silver screen — it’s been made into ten films worldwide since 1914 (including once with Fatty Arbuckle in the lead). But the best known of its many screen versions is the 1985 take, starring Richard Pryor and John Candy. It’s easy to see why it’s so popular with American audiences: the premise appeals to our base instinct to spend lots and lots of money. The original book and early versions of the film concerned Montgomery Brewster’s requirement to spend one million dollars in a year, with no assets to show for it, in order to attain his true inheritance of seven million dollars; by the ’85 version, inflation being what it is, Pryor’s Brewster had 30 days to spend $30 million in order to attain $300 million. Fast and funny, Brewster’s Millions is, in many ways, the quintessential ‘80s movie, a non-stop orgy of conspicuous consumption. That may be why talks of remake a couple years back fizzled; as with the unfortunate Arthur rehash, recession-era audiences just might not be in the mood to watch an irresponsible protagonist blowing through handfuls of cash. We say pish posh — embrace that disparity and incorporate it into the narrative. And besides, there’s no better time than now for the “none of the above” political campaign that Monty Brewster mounts in the ’85 film.
Those are the films we wouldn’t mind seeing remade — add yours in the comments!