With "Oldboy" hitting theaters with a thud last week, critics and audiences seem to have met Spike Lee's decision to remake the edgier, wildly original, now-classic 2003 Korean thriller with a resounding "why, exactly?" (Read our review here).
Regardless of their merits as standalone films, remakes are always a tough sell for discerning moviegoers. Even when a great director makes a successful stab at someone else's work - say, Scorcese's "Cape Fear" or Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia" - it's easy to imagine their time might have been better spent creating something wholly their own.
But occasionally a remake is truly worth the effort, either taking a great original premise and upping the execution, or adjusting the themes for a new time and place. Here are ten rare remakes that were absolutely worth it, and a look into the reasons why.
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956)
The Remake: Normally, when a director remakes their own movie, it's an airbooth-style money grab (See: Ken Scott's "Starbuck" vs. "Delivery Man," Michael Haneke's "Funny Games"). Hitchcock's American update on his 1934 British work "The Man Who Knew Too Much" lacked none of the same financial ambitions, but the results, made with a full budget, a forty-five minutes longer run time, and the best cast Hollywood had to offer (including frequent Hitchcock collaborator James Stewart) was a worthwhile double take.
Why it Was Justified: The original has it's virtues -- notably a young Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role. But giving the kidnapping thriller a second shot was a chance for a visual master at the top of his game a full swing at a promising early work. Really, look no further than the movie's legendary Royal Albert Hall sequence -- superiorly scored and framed with coldly effective static shots in the 1956 version -- to see the difference a few decades makes. In the man's own words: "Let's say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional." That pretty much sums it up.
SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
The Remake: There's a reason almost every director name-checks "Some Like it Hot" as an exercise in comedic brilliance. It's top to bottom, opening scene to historic ending one-liner, masterfully executed and acted. Little known fact: it's also a remake of 1951 German film, which was itself a take on a 1935 French comedy. But considering how long people have been laughing at men dressed like ladies and vice versa, you'd be glaring down an enormous rabbit hole to track down its origins.
Why it Was Justified: The most notable alteration in Billy Wilder's take was the addition of mobsters, which works well enough to heighten the tension. But the American version's cast, which included Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, an excellent Joe E. Brown, and Marilyn Monroe at her Marilyn Monroe-iest, was its true ace. When it's done this well, even old-as-the-art tropes as cross-dressing can feel fresh.
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964)
The Remake: Between launching the mythical directing career of Sergio Leone, the equally mythical film career of Clint Eastwood, and revitalizing the Western, it's safe to say the ripples of "A Fistful" are still being felt. Because the movie's shoestring budget, "Fistful" was an unofficial knockoff off of Kurisowa's samurai classic "Yojimbo," with the studio not ponying up the cash for the rights until they were hit with a lawsuit.
Why it Was Justified: While both movies are clearly drafted from the same plot points, Leone's micro-budget works in his favor here, with extreme closeups and a constant grit-in-the-teeth quality shaping the look. We also get Leone's first collaboration with composer Ennio Morricone, who would of course go on to be known as a (perhaps the) master of his craft. In essence, same steak, different sizzle.
THE THING (1982)
The Remake: A disappointment both critically and at the box office upon it's original release, John Carpenter's first crack at a decently-sized budget has since been as hoisted up as a horror classic. And despite a few effects that have aged like hollandaise, Carpenter's "Thing" stands the test of time far better than the Howard Hawkes-produced 1951 original.
Why it Was Justified: Carpenter ups the original in almost every way, most notably having his extraterrestrial beast shift shapes and delivering a more morally slippery ending. The movie has been viewed as everything from another take on Cold War tension to an allegory for the then-emerging AIDS virus. But regardless of Carpenter's aim, visually and viscerally, "The Thing," stands up to any remake scrutiny.
THE FLY (1986)
The Remake: The original "The Fly" still maintains it's own cultural legacy, mostly in parodies involving teleportation mix-ups that result in half scientist/half person hybrids ("Treehouse of Horror," of course, springs to mind). It also remains a cheesy good time that hits some of the same science-pushed-too-far notes of David Croneberg's better-known remake. But there’s a reason when you hear “The Fly” in 2013, you think Croneberg, not Price.
Why it Was Justified: Croneberg's version provides is a much more affecting human experience. While the 1958 "The Fly" sees the protagonist transforming into a half-man half-fly creature in an instant, Croneberg's version plays like a slow band-aid removal, making Seth Brundles gruesome deterioration far more tragic (and revolting) than his 1958 counterpart.
The Remake: Most movie-watching folks don't realize that prior to pitting De Niro against Pacino, if only for one glorious scene, Michael Mann's "Heat" was a pretty by-the-numbers made-for-TV movie that hit the small screen all the way back in 1989. Considering the restrictions of the medium forced Mann to cut his script nearly in half, pump the movie out in barely a month, and pinch every penny within sight, a full-fledged remake absolutely made sense.
Why it Was Justified: Despite sharing a plot with Mann's 1995 big screen crime opus, "L.A. Takedown" had almost none of the characteristics that made "Heat" a next-level crime movie -- namely, complex characters, great acting from some masters of the craft, and one of the most heart-stopping action scenes in movie history. Mann's 1995 take is about as good as cops vs. robbers gets.
THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1999)
The Remake: The original "Thomas Crown Affair" is now remembered as a classic, mostly because it has been immortalized by a remake, the most memorable sex/chess scene in film history, and the indelible good looks of Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in their prime. But like Soderberg's "Ocean's 11" McTiernan's "Thomas Crown Affair" took a great premise - a playboy, orchestrating a heist for kicks, and then being investigated by his sexy and savvy female equal - and tightened the bolts to create a much more compelling story.
Why it Was Justified: Steve McQueen's Thomas Crown, handsome and light on the words, orchestrates an armed robbery out of boredom, but sits back at a distance while it goes down. His 1999 counterpart, played with charisma to spare by Pierce Brosnan, also has a Hutt-sized ego, but feeds it bettering the stuffy mugs in the art world, committing a master art heist with his own two hands. Both movies are a bit dated now - the original with it's liberal use of split screens and the remake with it's synth/drum-machine cheese soundtrack (not to mention its use of Denis Leary in a major role). But overall, the remake provides more fun, more thrills, and way less lag.
OCEAN'S 11 (2001)
The Remake: The original "Ocean's," featuring a Sinatra-led Rat Pack, has the better backstory: World War II buddies try to match the thrills of combat by staging the ultimate Las Vegas heist. Unfortunately, their ultimate Las Vegas heist is a clumsily plotted mess that runs solely on the fumes of the cool charisma generated by The Chairman and co. When Soderbergh and company decided to remake the movie in 2001 they added an important element missing from the original: a cool heist. Somewhat important, considering it’s a heist movie and all.
Why it Was Justified: Clooney's Danny Ocean, although motivated by a ridiculous love triangle, has a far more interesting foe in S̶t̶e̶v̶e̶ ̶W̶y̶n̶n̶ Terry Benedict and his impenetrable Bellagio, and a better setting in the grandeur of Vegas circa 2000. The original is fun enough, but it isn't nearly the exercise in Hollywood Blockbuster precision of Soderberg's version, which delivers about as much dumb joy as you can have watching a movie.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004)
The Remake: Before Zach Snyder was given the keys to the movie business he got his Hollywood start remaking George Romero's horror classic "Dawn of the Dead," which, at the risk of upsetting an "Owls of Ga'Hoole" diehards out there, probably remains his best film. There's less social satire of consumer culture in Snyder's take, but depending on your ability to overlook (or even embrace) the micro-budget and bad acting of the original, the 2004 version might be a more entertaining watch.
Why it Was Justified: Really, there's no good reason to pit the two versions against one another -- outside of zombies and a shopping mall there's not much overlap. Snyder's "Dawn," which controversially featured the sprinting dead, is all about style, including slick, over-the-top gore and some brilliant musical moments (Johnny Cash's "When the Man Comes Around" comes to mind). Maybe it wasn't the Hollywood-budgeted "Dawn of the Dead" remake we needed, but it's still a whole lot of fun, anyway.
THE DEPARTED (2006)
The Remake: Since it was released in 2006, "The Departed" has unfairly been maligned as the lesser Scorsese movie that ended up getting the overdue Oscar love. Seven years later, it's not a masterpiece by Scorsese's standards, but it is top-to-bottom one of the most entertaining movies of the century. It also has more of an emotional tug than its Hong Kongese counterpart, "Infernal Affairs," which played out over a trilogy.
Why it Was Justified: Even with a time disadvantage Scorcese is still able to develop Boston as a beautifully nefarious backdrop, craft a more compelling love triangle than the original, and create higher emotional stakes. "Infernal" was heavy on style and finesse, with characters that mostly played it cool. "The Departed" focused more on the mental toll of being a dirty, filthy, sniveling rat.