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COMMENTARY

Remake rule No. 1: Don't

Since leaving well enough alone is not allowed in Hollywood, here are a few tips.

March 31, 2004|Stephen Farber | Special to The Times

In a business where imitation trumps originality, remakes rule. Desperate producers have regularly raided the vaults in a most-often futile effort to seize a sure thing. There have been multiple versions of "Mutiny on the Bounty," "The Prisoner of Zenda" and "King Solomon's Mines," to name just a few. But the coming months will see the largest number of high-profile remakes ever to hit theaters in one concentrated period.

The Coen brothers' retooling of "The Ladykillers" opened over the weekend, with Tom Hanks as the ringleader of a band of thieves, a role that Alec Guinness savored in the 1955 Ealing comedy. The Rock kicks butt Friday in the revenge drama "Walking Tall," which was a hit for Joe Don Baker in 1973. A slew of stars (including our governor) take cameo roles this summer in a new version of the 1956 Oscar-winner "Around the World in 80 Days."

Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler and Matthew Broderick head the cast of "The Stepford Wives," based on Ira Levin's novel about suburban wives turned into robots, which was previously filmed in 1975. Sinister conspiracies threaten the republic in a remake of the 1962 brainwashing thriller "The Manchurian Candidate." Jude Law reprises the role that helped turn Michael Caine into a star in "What's It All About, Alfie?"

Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez star in an American remake of the Japanese hit "Shall We Dance?" Dennis Quaid takes on Jimmy Stewart's role in a remake of "The Flight of the Phoenix," an adventure about a plane that crashes in the African desert. Next year, Steve Martin steps into Peter Sellers' shoes in a new version of "The Pink Panther."

Peter Jackson will follow up his Oscar-winning triumph on "The Lord of the Rings" by doing a remake of "King Kong" (which was already remade once, none too successfully, back in 1976). Director Bryan Singer has announced plans to remake the 1976 science-fiction fantasy "Logan's Run," and Adam Sandler takes over for Burt Reynolds in the football-in-prison movie "The Longest Yard."

Prepare to be disappointed by this army of clones. If you look back at the history of remakes, you will come to the inescapable conclusion that they almost never work. Even Tim Burton's remake of "Planet of the Apes" opened big but plummeted quickly.

Hollywood people have an amazing capacity for self-delusion, and many also have an overweening arrogance that leads them to scoff at the achievements of the past. While the young audiences studios court may not read reviews and may not remember the original movie that critics adore, overwhelmingly negative press can still cast a pall over a film that is tough to surmount. (And with the explosion in video and DVD, kids are becoming a lot savvier about the classics than they were even 10 years ago.) In any case, disgruntled directors can't lay all the blame on the critics. Filmmakers often flounder trying to find the right approach. If they follow the first film too slavishly, they only remind viewers of what's missing. If they veer too far from the original, they may lose the logic of the story.

Gus Van Sant's "Psycho" took the first approach, going so far as to present a shot-by-shot replica of Hitchcock's classic. Yet the terror evaporated, partly because the actors Van Sant chose couldn't find the perfect pitch that Hitchcock's ensemble achieved. On the other hand, the makers of "A Perfect Murder" took far more liberties with Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder," which was not one of the Master of Suspense's greatest movies. But their changes only succeeded in diluting the cat-and-mouse precision that gave the first movie its charm.

For all the filmmakers who are right now contemplating remakes, here are a few basic rules to bear in mind.

1. Never remake a film that forces you to recast an inimitable actor. "Charade" had a witty script by Peter Stone and stylish direction by Stanley Donen. But the key to the movie's success was the chemistry between its peerless stars, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Even if the script and direction of Jonathan Demme's remake, "The Truth About Charlie," had been better than they were, memories of those two legends were bound to overwhelm any actors who dared to step into their shoes. Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton as the next Grant and Hepburn? Please.

Clouseau fever

Keeping this maxim in mind, Steve Martin should think twice -- or three or four times -- before taking on the mantle of Peter Sellers in "The Pink Panther." Other actors -- including Alan Arkin, Ted Wass and even Roberto Benigni -- have already tried and failed to play Inspector Clouseau. Sellers' peculiar brand of lunacy will never be duplicated, even by a comic as gifted as Martin.

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