The other night I watched ‘Reykjavik-Rotterdam’, the original version of ‘Contraband’. The remake starred Mark Wahlberg and was directed by the star of the original. Locations switch from frosty Iceland to the Southern US, and the plot beats are pretty much the same, but here’s the thing; the remake is terrible. What felt fresh in the original suddenly feels tired and flat when transported West. What did it lose, and how? The story’s the same!
A hint of the problem comes when you watch the trailer for ‘Contraband’, which is about three days long. It’s earnest, unironic, unfunny and most of all, utterly joyless. In the original we bought the story of a smuggler doing once last job because there were no familiar faces, the dangers were as real as the offbeat pleasures, and there was no Giovanni Ribisi phoning in his ‘greasy weasel’ act as one of the villains. A running gag with a valuable painting no longer works, and the bonkers melodramatic ending which felt so right in the original now becomes a cliche. Could it simply be that the saturation of Hollywood crime tales means nothing can look original now? Or is there a cultural difference that can’t be overcome?
One problem is that Hollywood versions are required to fit into a demographic more tightly than European versions, which are really aimed at local audiences who’ll accept what feels like several genres in one film. Look at the poster for ‘Kontroll’ and you see the difference – it’s actually one of the grungiest looking films you’ll ever see, but is exciting and hilarious and romantic. Its rough look would surely have been the first thing to go.
Depressingly, there are few exceptions to the rule of diminishing remake returns (apart from, perhaps, ‘Let Me In’). The worst are ‘Spoorloos’ remade as ‘The Vanishing’, complete with a silly shovel-fight, ‘The Wicker Man’, with the seemingly unembarrassable Nicholas Cage shouting ‘Step away from the bike!’ and ‘Nightwatch’, which found a new remake problem. If you want to hide the killer’s identity until the last act, don’t hire a major Hollywood star. [Rec] just had its third part released in Europe, and while ‘Contamination’ was a faithful if less exciting approximation of the original, the original sequel was remade as an absurd drama set in an airport cargo bay(!), thereby breaking the story’s apocalyptic arc.
Loss of faith – and a palpable air of panic – seems to undermine remakes, which throw out the very things that made the originals brilliant. The first in the time travel trilogy ‘Les Visiteurs’ was reimagined by Hollywood disastrously, and I dread to think what will happen to French comedy hit ‘Welcome To The Sticks’, which is currently being remade.
Even hiring the same director and stars can’t fix the problem. But the odd thing is, when Hollywood remakes its own films it often does a terrific job. Filleting out the political aspects and the grimy look of many European films seems to wreck them. It would be fun to see US versions of ‘Kontroll’, ‘Agnosia’, ‘Calvaire’, ‘The Stone Council’ and others because they’re good stories that deserve wider audiences.
The problem could be just as bad in the other direction. The only way films like ‘Cyrus’ and ‘Cedar Rapids’ would work is if they were a whole lot less heartwarming. And all those sports movies – they simply don’t translate at all.
The Euro-thriller I’d most like to see remade involves a robbery that requires the blacking out of a city, and an anti-hero who doesn’t realise that his wife is on a life-support machine in a nearby hospital. In a very European style-choice, the blacked-out sections of the film are in colour, and the lights-on parts are in black and white.