There’s a long standing belief among film fans that movie remakes can never work out. You can’t just take something that was brilliant and powerful that captured a moment years ago and simply do it again. And it also begs the question of why one would bother to do that. If Alfred Hitchcock sat in the editing suite in 1960 and made sure that every single cut was perfect and created the first ever horror masterpiece, what would be the point in simply making another movie with its title, story, characters, and themes? Do your own thing! But they’re not all bad. Here are 10 movie remakes that are actually good.
10. King Kong
After the huge critical and commercial success of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the director became swamped in offers for what he would do next – but there was only one movie he was interested in. As a child, Jackson had been brought to tears by the original 1933 King Kong and remade it using his parents’ Super 8 camera. So, of course, when he got the opportunity to do a big Hollywood remake on a $200 million budget with complete creative control and final cut privileges, he seized it! The only problem with this movie is the length, since it runs for over three hours. But the content of that whopping running time is all fantastic stuff. There’s huge set pieces involving Kong fighting off legions of dinosaurs, but there’s also smaller, more romantic scenes like Ann and Kong ice skating together on the frozen lake in Central Park. It’s a scary movie, too – the scene where the tribespeople hop aboard the ship and take everyone is a frightening affair. Plus, the iconic climactic moment at the top of the Empire State Building is gorgeously restaged, and just like a nine-year-old Peter Jackson watching the 1933 Kong fall to his death, the audience is brought to tears, thanks to Andy Serkis’ humanizing motion capture performance.
You know you can always trust the Scandi countries for a good dark, mysterious thriller. They’re all over the TV right now. The Norwegian movie Insomnia from back in the late ‘90s is a sumptuous serial killer thriller about a murder investigation in a cold town. The ice cold atmosphere was carried over when Christopher Nolan adapted the movie for western audiences, and he created a thriller that was just as tense and spooky and chilling. The lead performances of Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank are all great, too. This is a remake worth watching. Erik Skjoldbjærg, who directed the original movie, even approved of Nolan’s interpretation of his work: “Well, I haven’t seen it for quite a while, but when I first saw it, it was a very strange experience, because it was quite close, stylistically, to the original. I felt lucky that it’s such a well crafted, smart film and that it had a really good director handling it, because as a remake, I think it did really well and it doesn’t hurt any original if a remake is well done. So, I felt I was lucky that Christopher Nolan took it upon himself to do it.”
8. Cape Fear
Martin Scorsese is not usually in the business of doing remakes. He has no problem with adapting novels for the screen, and he did do that sequel to somebody else’s movie once, but generally, he doesn’t like to step on other filmmakers’ toes by remaking their work. Having said that, there have been the rare times when he’s been talked into doing it. Steven Spielberg convinced him to do it, since it’s a more commercial movie that would give him the leverage to get more personal projects produced, so Scorsese took the job and put his signature stamp on it. He took a great psychological thriller and just went all out in making it creepier, bloodier, more aggressive, more violent – he made a “gritty reboot” before that was even a thing. And as for the cast, it’s not easy to fill roles that were once played by Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, two of the greatest actors who ever lived, but Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte do a surprisingly great job here. De Niro is particularly committed, as he had a dentist grind down his teeth and worked out like crazy and got himself down to 3% body fat just to have a menacing look for the film. Plus, the remake opens with a beautiful Hitchcockian credits sequence designed by the brilliant Saul Bass. So, on the whole, this is a brilliantly acted and directed Hitchcockian caper with added horror and violence.
7. True Grit
True Grit was a different kind of movie for John Wayne. He usually played clear cut, black and white heroes with unwavering moral principles. However, the Rooster Cogburn character was a dark and grizzled one. He likes to drink. He’s a ‘shoot first, ask question later’ kind of guy. It was nothing like John Wayne had ever played before. It was exciting. So, who do you cast in that role four decades later? Why, the great Jeff Bridges, of course. Bridges has that rugged world-weariness about it, and yet he’s also very likable. The Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit was a revisionist western, not a bright and colorful one. It felt like a Coen brothers movie – it felt like its own thing. Plus, it was more faithful to the novel that the earlier movie was adapted from. This was not a movie about Rooster Cogburn – it was a movie about the girl who hires him to track down her father’s killer, played by Hailee Steinfeld. Co-director Ethan Coen explained, “The book is entirely in the voice of the 14-year-old girl. That sort of tips the feeling of it over a certain way. I think [the book is] much funnier than the movie was, so I think, unfortunately, they lost a lot of humor in both the situations and in her voice. It also ends differently than the movie did. You see the main character – the little girl – 25 years later when she’s an adult. Another way in which it’s a little bit different from the movie – and maybe this is just because of the time the movie was made – is that it’s a lot tougher and more violent than the movie reflects, which is part of what’s interesting about it.”
Dredd was the second attempt to adapt 2000 AD’s star comic book character for the big screen, after that ‘90s travesty involving Sylvester Stallone taking off the helmet and Rob Schneider as the completely needless comic relief. The source material’s stories are set in a dystopian world where the Judges who roam the streets have the combined role of police, judge, jury, and executioner, so there’s so much room for social commentary that the ‘90s movie completely squandered in favor of hammy action sequences and Rob Schneider. Luckily, it was all there on full display in the new 3D 2012 version with the much better suited Karl Urban in the lead role, which satirizes the issue of the drug epidemic and how the police are handling it. The police are locking people up for minor non-violent drug offenses instead of tackling the wider issue at large. In Dredd, the Judges are mindlessly killing anyone who is either high or has sold a drug to anyone. That’s what 2000 AD is – a violent, exaggerated version of our own society. The Stallone version might have gotten an R rating, but the Urban version got a seriously hard R rating with some of the most graphic violence ever put on film. That’s the Judge Dredd way.
5. Evil Dead
Evil Dead is everything that a modern horror remake should be. It took a seminal horror film that was directed on a shoestring budget by a visionary director with no money and no visual effects and used today’s advanced cameras and computer technologies to finally realize that vision to its full potential, while keeping the integrity of the original movie intact. Sam Raimi had the idea to have some trees rape a woman back when he made the original, but it wasn’t until Fede Alvarez directed the remake that we got to see just how gruesome that could be. The remake is darker, scarier, bloodier, and more intense than the original. The original never had a woman slicing into her own arm with a skinny little chainsaw thing you use to carve a turkey to prevent a demonic possession from spreading (and then having it spread anyway). Throughout that whole scene, Alvarez keeps the camera right on his subject. He doesn’t cut away to make it easier for our eyes – he wants us to endure this gory moment. And that’s just one examples of all the creative ways that Alvarez came up with to make blood spurt out of a human body. The original Evil Dead movie was an ordeal to sit through, but it was nothing compared to the remake – and that’s exactly the point. This movie lived up to its “most terrifying film you will ever experience” promise and then some.
In 1932, Howard Hawks made Scarface: The Shame of a Nation. Along with Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, Scarface is one of the earliest classic gangster movies ever made, so it has a special place in film history. It tells the story of Tony Camonte, whose rise and fall was based loosely on the life of Al Capone. More than half a century later, in 1983, the movie was remade by Brian De Palma, who changed just about everything about the original plot, but kept the element of a crime lord’s rise and fall. Tony Camonte was swapped for Tony Montana. Chicago was swapped for Miami. The bootlegging business was swapped for the drug business. Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay, so it was a very political, issues-driven movie. The movie addressed the issue of immigration by having the Tony Montana character by a Cuban immigrant who comes to Miami with bright eyes and big dreams, and by doing this, the movie also has themes of the American dream. It may be a remake, but the 1983 Scarface is so well done and so unique and so important that it may even be a more significant cinematic landmark than the Hawks movie that came before it.
3. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has everything that you want a movie to have. It has a bunch of memorable scenes and very likable stars who have terrific chemistry and an interesting dynamic and a plot that keeps you engaged for the whole movie and a satisfying ending. Michael Caine and Steve Martin are perfectly matched stars, both when they’re playing adversaries and when they’re playing friends. All of their cons are so deviously clever and they play them all so convincingly and yet with a sly wink to the audience. The memorable scenes include the one where Martin pretends to be disabled and Caine tries to call him out on it by smacking him across the knees and watching tears roll down his face, or the one in which Martin pretends to be a mentally challenged guy named Ruprecht. This is, simply put, a bona fide classic comedy caper. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a remake of the movie Bedtime Story, which starred David Niven in the Michael Caine role and Marlon Brando in the Steve Martin role, and it will be getting a remake of its own later this year: a female remake in the vein of Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 8 entitled The Hustle, starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson.
2. The Departed
The Departed is not Martin Scorsese’s most popular movie. The fact that he won the Academy Award for Best Director for it is an issue of controversy and debate, since it was seen as more of a lifetime achievement award that the Academy had given him for snubbing him so much in the past, rather than an actual recognition of the individual achievement that is The Departed. Okay, granted, it is a sprawling and long and relatively aimless movie. It’s not as taut as Goodfellas or Taxi Driver. But it’s a complicated story. Matt Damon plays a dirty cop who is an informant for the mob, while Leonardo DiCaprio plays an undercover cop who has infiltrated the very same mob, and they’re both trying to figure out who each other are and Jack Nicholson is the mob boss who is playing them both. It’s like a cat and mouse and cat thriller. It’s very complex. But as an American remake of the ridiculously intricate Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, it’s pretty successful. Plus, The Departed was a fresh change for Scorsese gangster movies. He usually does Italian mafia movies set in New York, but this was an Irish mob movie set in Boston. There’s a lot to love about the movie. It shouldn’t be getting as much flak as it does.
1. The Jungle Book
When Disney first announced that it would be bringing out live action remakes of pretty much every one of its animated classics from the past hundred years, a lot of people were skeptical. It didn’t seem like they were doing this for the art – it just seemed like unnecessary milking of a giant cash cow, expending money and resources on pointless movies when there are so many more important stories to be told that didn’t even get an animated version first. But then The Jungle Book came out with its star studded cast and its incredible photorealistic visuals and its feelings of wonderment and completely changed the game. Jon Favreau and his team pioneered new technologies for CGI, photorealistic rendering, and performance capture to craft one of the most technically amazing visual effects movies in a landscape that’s chock full of them. But of course, that would all be meaningless if the movie had no story or character or heart. Well, guess what: it did. The beautiful, magical, wondrous feeling that permeated throughout the 1967 animated original was just as prevalent in the new remake. And the cast of A-listers – Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Ben Kingsley – are just the icing on the cake.