Tom Jolliffe looks at ten unnecessary remakes from the past and coming soon that no one asked for…
Hollywood is full of interesting and original ideas. Studios are actively looking to pursue new concepts and move away from simply repackaging or updating existing IPs. Okay, I’m fibbing. Hollywood is desperately scraping any old idea they can think of and remaking anything that breezes into the whim of an exec as they flip cable channels at two in the morning. “Ah man, Road House was cool…wait a minute…” And the light bulb pings, and then a few weeks later a remake is announced.
Remakes/reboots, of course, can be good. John Carpenter’s The Thing was wildly different from the movie it remade, and has remained unshakably timeless. Even Carpenter’s film found itself being rebooted with a prequel that somehow used modern technology to make something far less technically impressive than the 1982 masterpiece. Evil Dead was also remade effectively with a film, that whilst not a patch on its source material, was at least watchable and marketable. For the most part though, reboots and remakes tend to flop, or they’re sourced from an original that is impossible to recreate or uniquely reimagine.
Highlander has been the subject of persistent remake talk. A first film which flopped in the cinemas but proved enormous on video then spawned comics, games, animes, animated shows, terrible sequels and a serviceable TV show. So popular was the original that the mooted reboot has dragged on for decades, going through a number of directors and stars. Here’s the thing: Highlander is so perfectly unique, quirky, and bolstered with an iconic soundtrack. It drips 1980s charm and imperfection. Its casting selections are bizarre but memorable. So how do you approach a remake? Do you try and capture the same tone and style? You can’t. You’ll come up short.
Do you strip back the quirks and unique facets and make something more conventional? That generally tends to be the most consistent approach from studios but then you end up with something that’s crushingly conventional, mediocre and mundane. Though, just occasionally, elements fall into place that feel promising, like someone may just find a path to make their own unique version that might just be good. Step forward Chad Stahelski, who might be one of only a handful of realistic directors for something like Highlander who could make something worthy of watching.
It’s only the presence of Stahelski in fact which stops Highlander making the proceeding list of terrible remakes that should have never made it past the ideas stage…
In 1986, Robert Harman made The Hitcher. On paper, it’s a B movie schlocker that plays out like a slasher as a hitchhiker tracks and torments the young man who foolishly picked him up. The delivery felt special though, and ultimately the dark fairy tale fusion of action and horror would become huge on video and attain a cult following.
Rutger Hauer as the titular hitcher is mesmerising, imbuing his character with mystery, enigma and playful charisma. He feels near ethereal. It’s a really unique performance from Hauer. It’s also beautifully shot by John Seale. Wide open expanses of desert highway. Beautifully lit interiors and evocative moments like a car driving from open blue skies and burning sun on dust and dirt, into an almost hellish formation of black clouds (all real in fact).
Hauer called it a fucked up fairy tale and he’s right. The film looks as if it’s a Coen brothers film, impeccably framed throughout, with the intrigue of their works too. Additionally, the action is superb, C. Thomas Howell is desperate and alone until he unwittingly involves Jennifer Jason Leigh. A superb cast all around. There’s also Mark Isham’s dreamy score that flits into nightmare but is always atmospheric (so great in fact, his end track was repurposed recently in Stranger Things).
So how do you approach the remake? By churning out the ‘on paper’ version of the outline. Then you strip away all artistic flourish, character and uniqueness to make a product that can just be pushed out. It feels like every other generic desert highway torment film, not even as good as Joyride or Highwaymen (also Robert Harmon). As good as Sean Bean is most times, he’s given more back story than necessary and limited to generic villain tropes.
Some remake announcements just scream lazy. They feel like the approach is to make a product to pump out that will make money on (these days) a streaming platform. It doesn’t matter how unique and of the time the original might be, or that the concept doesn’t travel well from 1989 to the present day. It doesn’t matter that at no point did Joe Public ever stop and think, “Man, I wish there was an update of Road House.” Jake Gyllenhaal is great. One of the best actors of his generation, but like many, he occasionally makes choices that seem financially motivated. This is one.
So why was the original Road House great? Nay…perfect…Well, it screamed 80s. It’s cheesy, it’s ludicrous but it’s sincere and it’s fucking cool. It’s a film filled to the brim with mullets and bad fashion, but it’s somehow, just…so cool. Patrick Swayze oozed charisma as a character haunted by the fact he killed a man by ripping his throat out. He spends the entire movie haunted by this until inevitably he comes to terms with his past and can finally rip out another throat and accept he’s a violent throat-ripping killing machine. Beautiful (sheds a tear).
Road House should be terrible. In some ways it sort of is, but it’s brilliant. It’s also from an era where films like this were simply dismissed for all artistic merit, but upon looking back you realise action films (with reasonable budgets) in the 80s looked stunning. Shot by Dean Cundey on good old 35mm, it just looks gorgeous. Cinematographers shooting mid-level studio action films aren’t as good these days. They’re not given the tools to me. Films look cheap, or like TV shows (whilst many TV shows now look more like movies…yep, crazy).
It’s also got a great score from Michael Kamen. Composers are now tasked with creating production line generic score rather than delivering something with their own personality (as Kamen’s unique style would do). Will Gyllenhaal’s Road House go nostalgic and try to recreate tropes that were apt in the original? That’s a road to failure, but so too is making a straight-up walking tall-style thriller. Swayze was cool and compelling, opposite Ben Gazarra having a lot of fun as the villain. 4K the original up and rerelease it instead.
Take Total Recall, a film loosely based on a Philip K. Dick short story. It’s the perfect Schwarzenegger vehicle that’s also a sensational showcase for everything Paul Verhoeven does well. On top of that, it’s got creative and brilliantly delivered visuals and FX. It’s a stunning-looking film (and sounding, thanks to Jerry Goldsmith) that because of all its elements, feels inherently unique.
Though it bore little relation ultimately to its source, it took scraps from We Can Remember it For You Wholesale and made it a perfect fusion of action and spectacular sci-fi (with a bit of ambiguity). All the humour, satire and comically excessive violence deliver a stunning and timeless film. So you have a remake. Do you strip it back and stay truer to Dick’s story (which would make a great A24-Esque philosophical sci-fi thriller)? No, of course not. You go to the photocopier production line that dozens of films seemed to follow between 2002-2012 and you pump out another.
You know all those blockbusters that looked like they all had the same person on cinematography, colour and grading between 2002 and 2012? Or that seemed to have interchangeable scores? Total Recall 2012 is another that feels like it belongs in the bilge of films that almost blend together. Then you ensure that every reference to the original, is just a bit shitter, that every new element is dull and performances are hackneyed.
Colin Farrell might be a better actor than Schwarzenegger, but Ahnuld’s protagonist is far more interesting and his performance a lot more engaging. Then you have a comparison between great violent, Hard R-rated set pieces with almost entirely practical effects, up against a CGI-heavy, overdone and weightless outpouring of set pieces in the PG 13 remake. Urgh…
A film that has already been remade twice (with sequels to boot too). So naturally, another remake is entirely necessary, right? Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of the iconic heist classic (with Sinatra, Martin, Davis Jr et al) was effortlessly cool. It might have stretched logic but the brilliant ensemble not only captured the kind of charisma-filled cool of the original but also gave it a modern feel. It felt both fresh and zippy and warm-heartedly nostalgic.
When Ocean’s Eleven (2001) came out, Hollywood was still star-driven. It was more about your headliners than the concepts. Pulling together the top stars of the time like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts gave the cast dazzling gravitas. Two serviceable but fun sequels followed, then a female-centric reboot with Sandra Bullock that was once again, elevated by its game cast.
Recent reports of Ryan Gosling stepping up to headline another reboot just feel crushingly unimaginative. Stars don’t hold the weight they once did. If it’s being made for streaming then it may have minor appeal, where people still want star power almost as much as IP. Still, is there a huge demand? The original and the Clooney Trilogy, even Bullock’s entry will always play well on the streamers. Is a Ryan Gosling Ocean’s film going to pull any more punters than simply a new Ryan Gosling heist film? I don’t think so. Gosling will do it for the payday, who can blame him, but the lack of imagination in greenlighting yet another reboot will undoubtedly extend to their approach to producing it.
Point Break is a cult favourite and despite a somewhat goofy premise, has already risen above that thanks to the sensibilities and style of Kathryn Bigelow. The film is beautifully shot and thunderously exciting when the action kicks in. Add to that a fine cast, and the film is rightly regarded as one of the best action thrillers of the 90s. It’s very stylistically of its time, but Bigelow certainly elevates the routine undercover plot line with dazzling surf and sky diving set pieces which make the central backdrop of nomadic extreme sports enthusiasts very enticing.
Heading up the group of surf dudes by day, bank robbers (with philosophical ideals) by night is Patrick Swayze at his charismatic best. He slowly enamours undercover Fed, Johnny (Keanu Reeves) with an undeniable magnetism in a film teeming with bromance. Reeves is great. He’s just the right level of pretty boy vacancy and determined grit. Like many other films that get targeted for remake, it’s all these individualities that make the film special. Those can’t be copied, and by the same token, a routine remake that tries to ground things in convention proves dour by contrast. Everything about the 2015 reboot, some impressive set pieces aside, feels a bit grim and there’s no hint of irony at the conventions of the genre here which Bigelow subtly winked at.
Jason Momoa is cool. As one of the many rumoured to be up for playing Eric Draven in an updated reboot, he’d have done okay. So to Bill Skarsgard, but there’s a problem. The original film adaptation of James O’Barr’s iconic graphic novel nailed the material perfectly. It felt like a graphic novel bought to life. Alex Proyas’ film was both perfectly of its time, but also way ahead of its time too. It was a stylistic front runner to a number of films like Blade and The Matrix, as well as grittier, danker takes on comic book characters like Nolan’s Batman (and even more so Matt Reeves’ version) and Zack Snyder’s DC films.
Dark, edgy and incredibly stylish, the original features a pitch-perfect Draven played by the late Brandon Lee, whose performance hangs over all who will follow. Again, there’s very little room in the modern age to be given a studio gig and be given license to be visionary as Proyas had. He took that opportunity with both hands. A churned-out product lacking imagination is the last thing audiences want. This should stay in development. The only way to do it is to go the series route and capture what the Mark Dacascos fronted show never managed.
Conan the Barbarian
Jason Momoa recently came out to bemoan the quality of the Conan the Barbarian remake which he fronted. He’s right to do so. The film was terrible. A cynical cash grab with minimal care from producers over the end product. One thing sorely lacking was an engaging script, particularly in comparison to an original written by John Milius and Oliver Stone. Additionally, you have a visionary director like Milius who created a perfect fusion of old-school B picture, with grandiose epic and opera.
The original Arnold Schwarzenegger film, with very little dialogue, tells its story very effectively, perfectly aided by one of the greatest film scores of all time (by comparison, the remake’s music was serviceable at best). When you compare the comparative elements in the remake, it’s extraordinary compared with average. Likewise, the supporting cast in the original film was very impressive for a film like this with Max von Sydow, Mako and James Earl Jones, all high pedigree actors recognised by the Oscars during their careers.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was a revolutionary cinematic masterpiece. It redefined convention and helped kickstart an era of Hollywood auteurs and visionary creators. We all know the film and its iconic images. Killing off the star name at the end of the first act was also a stroke of genius, and the final twists in the tale were equally awe-inspiring. 38 years later (with three sequels in between) Gus Van Sant was hired to remake the film. Van Sant came with plenty of pedigree and legitimate masterpieces on his CV. So how did he approach the remake? By doing an almost shot-for-shot remake, only in colour.
The casting choice of Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates is one of the all-time great miscast roles. The late Anne Heche in place of Janet Leigh did a good job, one of the better parts of the movie, but everything else was a pale copy of the original masterpiece. One rare new addition I recall is a sequence of Bates jacking off whilst spying on Marion Crane in the shower. That probably says it all about how misguided this greenlight was.
Much like Total Recall, the decision to remake a Paul Verhoeven classic is often one fraught with peril. Verhoeven took the job of RoboCop director with a very clear plan. He wanted to completely subvert genre expectations for a film that was on paper, a B movie. The schlocky elements he wanted to ramp up, and on top of that he cranked up the satire to 11. It’s a clever, funny, brutally violent masterpiece with heartfelt moments thanks to the compelling casting choice of Peter Weller as the titular character whose last remnants of humanity are trying to break the system directives.
Everything about the remake on the other hand felt safe, like a bowing adherence to trends and conventions of 2014. It was essentially the very thing Verhoeven actively rebelled against making. It looked like every other blockbuster and it was tame by comparison. Every nod to a wry piece of satire from the original was groan-inducing and despite a game cast, they never captured the emotions of the audience, ultimately being a box office dud which has been forgotten within a decade.
Directors remaking their own iconic films. It’s happened plenty of times. Occasionally it works (Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, to a point), but most times it doesn’t (Dick Maas with two versions of The Lift). John Woo, approaching 80, is looking to remake one of his most iconic films ever made, The Killer. His spectacular, character-driven action classic had heart, great performances and incomparably good action scenes. Back then, John Woo had the perfect balance between his unmistakable style and Woo-isms and melodrama teetering just below hammy. Doves may have flown in slow motion but it never felt cheesy until he was pastiching himself in Hollywood.
There are key reasons that even with Woo manning the film himself, The Killer cannot be remade. The most glaring one is that the days of all practical on-screen pyrotechnics and insane stunts are long gone. We’re in an age where even with 200 million to spend on a film, the majority of your explosions, stunts, squibs and muzzle flashes, are created with CGI. It still looks mostly terrible, even when there’s a gargantuan budget. It’s just the practicalities of film-making which are now so different, whereas the golden era of Hong Kong cinema would see action scenes being given months upon months to shoot.
Sadly too, Woo is now a shadow of the artist he once was. Creative verve inevitably runs dry. As a Peacock premiere this may actually benefit from the tight budget it’ll probably have. Perhaps it can be approached with a big focus on character and less action-heavy than the original, particularly if they can inject some grit into it. Yes…that means conventional, but it’s probably a safer approach than Woo trying to match his original for style and spectacle.
So, there we have ten awful remake ideas. What’s the worst remake you’ve ever seen or heard of? Is it time for Hollywood to stop pumping out remakes that often have no audience demand? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.