“Remake” is a poisonous word in Hollywood, one of the ones used to blast studios for their infuriating laziness. To an extent, audiences are right. Rehashes are too often misfires.
But too few realize that the idea of a remake isn’t the villain — simply the current way in which it’s practiced is — as some of the greatest films of all time are remakes.
The Magnificent Seven? A Fistful of Dollars? Two defining Westerns, both remakes of Akira Kurosawa films. Scarface, a film whose line of dialogue — “Say hello to my little friend!” — has entered the cultural lexicon, is a remake of a 1932 film. The Maltese Falcon, perhaps the defining film in the noir tradition, is a remake of a film made 10 years prior. Even Heat is a remake of Michael Mann’s own TV movie.
The best directors, such as the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, Peter Jackson, John Carpenter, James Cameron and more, all delve into remakes. There is no shame in remaking something, as long as the filmmakers are informed and committed to telling a good story — like most of these examples show.
In line with the release of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, a remake of a 1974 film, we decided to list some of our personal favorite remakes that also are a testament to the fact that the act of remaking something can be a brilliant idea in the right hands.
Ocean’s Eleven is truly a contemporary classic, one of the greatest heist films of all time and one of the most dynamically engaging films of the 21st century. It’s easy to write it off as simply entertainment, as director Steven Soderbergh just having a good time. But Soderbergh is at, perhaps, his most skillful here as a director. The pacing is electric and never offbeat. Despite having over 10 characters to follow, we find it easy to distinguish due to brilliant characterization. Mainly through editing, the composition of scenes occurring during the heist are, on a sensory level, as gripping as the best action scenes can be. Writer Ted Griffin’s dialogue is snappy and worthy of comparison to Sorkin. On all levels, Ocean’s Eleven is outstanding entertainment and filmmaking.
And that’s precisely what separates Soderbergh’s remake from the 1960 original. Sure, that one puts up a fight, and might honestly win, for the more steely cool cast; Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. are a tough trio to beat. But the original is only so entertaining — because its storytelling doesn’t allow it to be more than just that.
As the film continues to age, more will recognize the significance of Ocean’s Eleven beyond its own entertainment value. For now, though, we’ll gladly call it one of the most fun movies of recent memory.
— Kyle Kizu
There are better remakes out there, like The Fly, The Thing and Heat, but out of principle, I feel some degree of obligation to bring up Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (since this site, and the internet in general, is really lacking in discourse about him). All jokes aside though, Nolan’s Insomnia — a remake of the 1997 Norwegian original starring Stellan Skarsgård — really is a gem that gets overlooked too often.
Insomnia might be Nolan’s most conventional film — it’s not told out of order like Memento, it didn’t kickstart genre trends like The Dark Knight and it’s not an art-house epic like Dunkirk — but that’s no slight against it. First off, the film’s performances are just as good as any other in Nolan’s filmography. As an ethically-compromised, sleep-deprived detective, Al Pacino broods just as well as Christian Bale would in The Dark Knight Trilogy. But like the films of that trilogy, the villain in this film also steals the show. Robin Williams shines as a crime author who gives into his most depraved instincts, and we see a side of Williams previously unknown. He’d given strong dramatic performances prior to Insomnia, but in this film, we see how his comedic chops translate into darkness. As a director, Nolan prides himself on showing audiences something they’ve never seen before, and with Williams’ performance in this film, Nolan accomplishes just that.
If nothing else, Insomnia represents Nolan’s earning of Warner Bros’ trust, and in this sense, the film is somewhat responsible for giving us Nolan’s entire filmography. There would be no The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, Interstellar or Dunkirk without Insomnia, and that fact alone makes the film unique in cinema’s history of remakes.
— Harrison Tunggal
A majority of Martin Scorsese’s films draw upon historical figures and happenings, but the director ensures each of his works has merit as a piece of original cinema first, and that it’s not merely an adaptation. That’s what makes it so surprising to learn that one of Scorsese’s best, The Departed, is actually a remake of 2002’s Infernal Affairs, a Hong Kong-produced film whose plot essentially mirrors the renowned director’s own. Despite the enormous debt Scorsese owes to writers Alan Mak and Felix Chong for crafting such an intriguing premise on criminality, his film represents the best possible outcome in remaking a film — a voice and identity not entirely dependent on the source material but rather established by its own volition. Scorsese injects an American, and specifically Bostonian-Irish sensibility into The Departed which informs each set piece, line of dialogue and character in the film. This is a movie that feeds off its blue-collar setting and mentalities wherein characters as major as undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and minor as ‘Man Glassed in Bar’ (Brian Smyj) are so indelibly real because of their American-Made attitudes and ethno-specific upbringings. What Scorsese so fantastically captures in The Departed is a moral dilemma and desperation that is autonomous and indicative of its setting’s cultures and peoples. This is not simply Infernal Affairs translated for American audiences, a whitewashed product that makes no attempt to cultivate its own social quandaries (*cough* Death Note *cough*); this is reverent of its source and an amazing piece cinema all its own.
— Sanjay Nimmagudda
Featured image via Warner Bros.