Thursday, April 28, 2005

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Movie Club #1: A Remake Isn't Necessarily a Bad Thing
I've been loaning movies like crazy to a couple of friends who work at the Arena Grand Theater and we've been discussing the films I lend them. I figure I might as well include the rest of you lot in the fun. It's not so much a lesson as it is a discussion. I don't have anything to teach you, for the most part. Dialogue about what you've watched and experienced will likely tell you everything you need to know.
The first rule of Movie you are ALLOWED to talk about Movie Club.
If you want to take part in the discussion, either comment at the link below or shoot me an e-mail (link's the the right). The neat thing is, like I said, this isn't really a lesson. It's a discussion. We all have something to learn from each other.
This week's homework is rather simple. Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo is one of the greatest Westerns ever made. It's been redone more times than I care to count. Two of the remakes, I'd consider classics. Those are John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 and Nid de Guêpes aka The Nest.
John Carpenter, director of Assault on Precinct 13 revisited the story in Ghosts of Mars and his first remake was remade just this year by Jean-Francois Richet as yet another Assault on Precinct 13. I'll gloss over both of those later.
Rio Bravo is pretty much iconic. The struggle of a few against impossible odds is a story that goes all the way back to the Spartans at Thermopylae and beyond. If nothing else, we as a species love a hopeless cause. The movie was based on a story by BH McCampbell and translated into screenplay form by Jules Furthman (who worked with Howard Hawks on the script for Howard Hughes' The Outlaw) and Leigh Brackett (who wrote two pseudo remakes: El Dorado in 1966 and Rio Lobo in 1970 -- AND wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back [certain fans give her credit for the film's overwhelming success as a sequel]).
It's nearly four minutes and forty-five seconds before the first line in the movie is even spoken. The prologue is, instead, almost pantomimed as a drunk simply known as Dude or Borachón [drunk in Spanish] (Dean Martin) stumbles into a bar with nothing but dust in his pockets looking for a drink. Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) humiliates him, and when Sheriff John T Chance (John Wayne) steps in, he ends up getting clocked by Dude for his trouble. When another man attempts to stop Burdette from beating Dude, Burdette shoots the interloper and simply walks to another bar. When Chance, bloodied but not licked, shows up to arrest Burdette, Joe's buddies draw down on the lawman. Only the intervention of Dude prevents the Duke from getting a proverbial lead enema.
When next we see Dude, he's sporting a tin star. He's now the town deputy, even if he may be a broke down boozehound. He knows he's a drunk. He knows he's useless not just to others, but to himself. He's a man who hasn't quite reached the end of the line, but he's seen the signposts advertising it. He'd fish a dollar out of a spitoon to get a whiskey, he's so damn low. However, he's a hot hand with a gun, and he's loyal to his friends. Fifteen years later, Dude would be the inspiration for Gene Wilder's character, The Waco Kid, in Mel Brooks' classic Blazing Saddles.
Ricky Nelson's Colorado Ryan comes through town riding guard for a wagon train led by Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), and Pat and Chance catch up. Joe's brother Nathan, a wealthy landowner, has surrounded the town. All Chance has to help him are Dude and an old codger with a bum leg named Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Angie Dickinson is also along as Feathers, a gambler with a shady past.
Wheeler tries to recruit someone to help Chance and gets a bullet in the back for his troubles, and thet's where the movie kicks into gear. Burdette has 30-40 professional guns, versus Chance and his two deputies...but you know Colorado lends a hand, right? Still, 10-1 are long odds. No quarter for the losers. It's gonna get ugly before it gets over.
I honestly don't think John Wayne was ever a good actor, and he was already hip deep in the dissipation of alchoholism and middle age. However, some of his most memorable films still awaited him -- The Alamo, Hatari!, McLintock!, True Grit, The Green Berets, The Longest Day, Rooster Cogburn, Cahill: US Marshall, Chisum and Big Jake. The Duke may not have refined with age, but he never lost his robustness either. Here, he's about as simple a character as has ever been in a Western. He's a big, taciturn man...honorable to a fault. The quintessential samurai.
Westerns and samurai stories are very much intertwined, the earliest samurai novels having been influenced by imported dime novels from the US, and then in turn influencing filmmakers to make their Western heroes lone warriors with clear-cut honor. Westerns inspired the golden age of Japanese film, where Kurosawa and his brethren made Westerns with sandals and katana instead of boots and six-guns. Finally, after the late 1960s, came the postmodern Westerns -- Westerns that wore their influences proudly, and occasionally just copied the samurai outright to great effect. We'll cover those at a later date.
The movie is directed with economy and simplicity, letting the actors do the work. Doesn't make for an ugly movie at all, since the sets and scenery are so damn nice (and I'm not just talking about Angie Dickinson in her prime). There's a shot at the halfway point, just before Dude finally casts aside the identity of Town Drunk that's every bit as gorgeous as the glamor shots in Unforgiven or Open Range. The actors themselves just let the characters do the talking. The characters themselves are stripped down to the bare essentials, their story arcs simple and direct. The only padding in the movie is a mostly unnecessary pair of musical numbers for Martin and Nelson to get their music fans into the theater.
John Carpenter was a big fan of Howard Hawks, seeing as he remade two of his movies: Rio Bravo and The Thing From Another World. He even used the name John T Chance as a pseudonym (watch the credits on Precinct 13 for the editor). Taking pretty much only the bare bones of Rio Bravo, Carpenter amped up the tension by giving the heroes less places to go. They're stuck in the jailhouse.
There's still a sheriff (actually a police lieutenant) -- Bishop, played by Austin Stoker. However, his deputies have been replaced by a couple of secretaries and a handful of convicts. The cops and criminals need to work together...otherwise, they're all dead.
A street gang is seeking revenge after several of their number are gunned down in a police ambush. They roam the streets, killing at will, until one of their number is in turn killed by a man avenging the death of his daughter. They chase him to a police station on its last evening as an active post. Precinct 13 is shutting down, its personnel and equipment already gone.
Concurrently, a bus transferring convicts between the county jail and the state pen makes a stop there after one of the prisoners takes ill. On that bus is Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), a criminal with a mysterious past and a serious attitude problem.
Sometimes mystery is good. Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. Boba Fett. Mysterious strangers hold your attention because of your natural curiousity. The same is true for Napoleon Wilson. He's a smartass. He has a reputation...but for what, you never know. All you know is that he's in prison for life, and he knows his way around a gun.
The great thing about the original Assault on Precinct 13 is that the antagonists never speak. They simply attack and attack and attack. The defenders of the precinct never know why they've been chosen for elimination. They simply know that they're trapped, they're outnumbered and the only way they're going to survive is together. Bishop quickly makes the decision to let the prisoners have weapons, even though it doesn't come near to evening the odds against them.
The gang itself might seem trite by today's standards. They come more from the school that produced The Warriors and West Side Story than Boyz N the Hood or Colors. Hollywood hadn't yet dealt with the issue of gang violence realistically enough. However, this movie was definitely a step in that direction. The violence that they lay down on the occupants of Precinct 13 is horrifying. So much so that the friend who recommended it to me believed there was some sort of supernatural force behind them the first time he saw it. They simply do not stop. It's kill or be killed.
Carpenter himself followed the supernatural line of thinking with his Prince of Darkness and Ghosts of Mars. While the earlier film has other things going on, Ghosts of Mars is damn near a copycat of his earlier work, except set on another planet and involving the undead. It's a solid, though hokey, concept...but the film never quite gels correctly. Perhaps they just tried to much. Perhaps the studio cut out the information that would have made it a coherent whole (though something tells me it was unsalvageable). In any case, Ghosts of Mars is truly only for the true hardcore Carpenter fan, and only marginally for them.
Assault on Precinct 13 succeeds for many reasons. First, it didn't try to be a direct remake. It forged new ground and is just as imitated as its template. The heroes and heroine have an easy chemistry that doesn't seem at all forced. There's no movie star presence to deal with (only one of the three leads had much of a career as an actor, only in bit parts). Stoker is believeable. Joston is charismatic and charming. Leigh (Laurie Zimmer, whose character is named after Rio Bravo scribe Leigh Brackett) is beautiful and strong willed. Once again, the production is minimal, the characterization is minimal (Napoleon Wilson's backstory, for as complex and noteable as everyone seems to think he is, goes totally untold) and the focus is on moving the story along.
Unlike Rio Bravo, where the final showdown is brief, the majority of this movie is siege. The gang members just keep coming, no matter how many the heroes kill. The gang is smart, too. They use silencers and disable the precinct's ability to communicate, isolating them from the surrounding area. They clean up the bodies and hide any traces of combat so that passing cars or helicopters would suspect nothing. They are relentless, ruthless and efficient (except when it comes to wasting dozens of their number on the countless assaults our protagonists face).
When the film was recently remade, Bishop became a drug lord (so much for that progress of having the hero in the original be black) who was in league with corrupt cops. When he's taken into custody, the cops attack the precinct to eliminate him before he can give testimony about them. It lowered the cops' desperation level a bit, but the remake was surprisingly effective.
Oddly enough, this year's remake of Assault on Precinct 13 was directed by a Frenchman. Why's that odd? Because another Frenchman, Florent Emilio Siri, already did a remake in France. Nid de Guêpes. Where the other two films are sparse in their cinematography and production design, this one is a stylish affair.
A group of commandos captures a Albanian warlord/crime boss who's responsible for terrorism, rapes, kidnappings, prostitution -- you name it. Two warehouse watchmen report for work, sitting and watching monitors. A group of thieves enter the warehouse to heist laptop computers. These three groups all converge when the war criminal's army shows up and begins blasting.
Once again, only the bare skeleton of the original (in this case, Assault on Precinct 13 -- so it's a remake of a remake) is kept. The characters are a much different mix this time. You have thieves, soldiers and security guards. The women pull their own weight...and kick just as much or more ass than the men. And help is already on the way...except they have no idea where the transport convoy disappeard to.
Their opposition is frighteningly organized, too...which means they not only have to work together, they have no room for error, and they're already out of time.
The timetable and scope of this movie makes it brutal and unrelentingly paced. No one gets a chance to question their situation -- and when one tries to, well, let's just say it's the last mistake he makes. Once again, kill or be killed is the rule. Influenced by the ammo counts of American and Hong Kong action films, Siri piles the action on and doesn't let up until the very end.
France seems to be the home of a new renaissance in action filmmaking. With Luc Besson, Jan Kounen, Gérard Krawczyk, Mathieu Kassovitz and Christophe Gans out there (and more waiting in the wings, I'm sure), things are just starting to get really interesting in France.
The point of all of this nonsense is simple: we need not fear the remake. If a remake is done with respect, creativity and skill, it can be every bit as good as the original. Yes, the majority of them are bad. And yes, even talented filmmakers can make a bad remake (Ghosts of Mars or the Psycho remake immediately come to mind). But remakes aren't the enemy.
Talentless hacks are.

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