When America gets its hands on a notable, acclaimed, or even obscure foreign film for an English-language, celebrity-filled remake, it’s usually not so good. It’s part of why initial reports of the upcoming Parasite HBO series, from both original director Bong Joon Ho and very American director Adam McKay, had me in a state of discontent. Excellent films are excellent films, no matter what language, no matter what country of origin. In fact, these differences in language, in origin, in cultures explored are part and parcel of what make our contemporary filmscape so satisfying. (collider)
It’s downright delightful to find the universal themes explored in such specifically told stories. Why does America feel the need to Westernize and sanitize them? Enough of my pretentious high-horse rant. Because sometimes you learn that the Parasite HBO series will come from Bong’s original ideas. Sometimes you learn that one of the literal best American films of all time is a remake. Sometimes Hollywood does a good job. Here are 10 of the best American remakes of foreign films.
- Let Me In (Let the Right One In, Sweden)
Director/Writer: Matt Reeves
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloë Grace Moretz, Elias Koteas, Richard Jenkins.
Like most remakes of foreign films, on paper, the idea of redoing the perfectly sensitive, sweet, and yes, scary Swedish vampire film “Let the Right One In” with an American point of view seems redundant at best, and destructive at worst. After all, American film, the horror space especially, doesn’t necessarily have a reputation of “sweetness and sensitivity.” Heck, even the new title Let Me In suggests a certain level of bluntness and aggression that fans of the original probably just ain’t looking for. But wouldn’t you know it, filmmaker Matt Reeves, king of the “wonky idea on paper, absolute home run in practice” , put together the magic alchemy to make it work and thensome.
Let Me In, like Let the Right One In (both the original film and the 2004 novel it’s based on), follows the unlikely friendship between a struggling young boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and, well, a damn lil’ vampire who sucks blood and whatnot (Chloë Grace Moretz). Reeves uses the “blunt America of it all” expertly to give his take on the material a new, region-specific backbone of traumas to explore and fight against. By setting the picture in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan lurks in every television shadow, making Reeves’ point that American exceptionalism and imperialism is, truly, the biggest cultural vampire of them all, giving Smit-McPhee and Moretz’s actions of duplicity, murder, and burgeoning affection so much room for empathy. Plus and I cannot overstate this Reeves stages the hell out of his horrors, giving the film the queasy tonal back-and-forth it needs to generate intrigue. (collider)
- The Departed (Infernal Affairs, Hong Kong)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: William Monahan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Anderson, Alec Baldwin.
For a guy who gets tons of critical acclaim, Oscar nominations, and general filmmaking prestige, Martin Scorsese is an absolutely nutty director when he wants to be. In “The Departed “, a film for which he won the Oscar for Best Picture and Director, Scorsese goes ham. It’s a long descent into the madness of the criminal underground, the undercover cops who lose their grip of sanity, and the aggressively violent fluidity of morally ambiguous identities. And when I say “long,” I mean that literally. It is not at The Irishman’s level of length, but Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan (also an Oscar-winner for this) left no stone unturned in their two-and-a-half hour examination of looney, looney crime men and beyond the satisfyingly twisted points of the plot, Scorsese and Monahan also leave the margins stuffed with subtle (and often blaringly obvious) examinations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and the nightmare of performatively toxic masculinity in modern Boston. But the movie never feels long. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (also an Oscar-winner for this) cut this picture to the bone at an almost avant-garde level, careening scenes and clips of dialogue next to each other with little need for orientation or context. Hell, they’ll even make purposefully discontinuous cuts within the same scene, all seemingly in the service of their characters’ mounting disorientation (one late scene, involving a paranoid Leonardo DiCaprio and a completely out of his gourd Jack Nicholson, uses this technique alongside his actors’ unhinged energy to create one of the scariest non-horror movie scenes I’ve ever seen). The film is a remake of the acclaimed Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs (winner of Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards), and while Scorsese’s working in a different style than directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, one scene involving DiCaprio chasing after Matt Damon through a series of bleary, colorful, neo-noir alleyscapes feels like a reverent-by-being-irreverent tip of the hat to the film Scorsese is borrowing from. (collider)
- Sleepless (Nuit Blanche, France)
Director: Baran bo Odar
Writer: Andrea Berloff
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan, Dermot Mulroney, David Harbour, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Gabrielle Union, Scoot McNairy.
If you’re a fan of Dark, Netflix’s German-language “Stranger Things but WAY spookier” show, check out its creator Baran bo Odar’s underrated action remake Sleepless (from the 2011 French thriller Nuit Blanche).
The narrative is catnip for genre fans: Jamie Foxx glowers and smolders as a corrupt cop plowing his way through the Las Vegas underworld to find his kidnapped son. Beyond its more typical corrupt cop shootouts (which are staged in gnarly darkness punctuated by purple bursts of color), Sleepless stands out from the pack with its surprisingly intense martial arts choreography. Some of the fight sequences even feel like grimy amateur wrestling, or like if you hired John Cassavetes to cover a Jackie Chan sequence. Characters body slam each other into whatever surfaces are around, and grab whatever items are around to use as brutal, improvised weapons. Beyond its shockingly bone-crunching action aesthetics, Sleepless also features actors having fun playing against type. Michelle Monaghan, generally reduced to playing love interests in actioners like Mission: Impossible, chews up the scenery as a tough Internal Affairs investigator. Scoot McNairy orders a dish of ham with a side of ham as the villian. And T.I. just continues to be a treasure in this world. The original Nuit Blanche (“Sleepless Night”) also boasts action excellence, but with a decidedly different aesthetic, its director Frédéric Jardin favors a more muted, realistic color palette, and its fight scenes rip at the seams with gritty, minimalist handheld photography. Odar’s work is much more stylized and obviously crafted, providing quite the different viewing experience, which is exactly how every director should approach a remake. Ignore the critics — Sleepless is worth your time. (collider)
- The Birdcage (La Cage aux Folles, France/Italy)
Director: Mike Nichols
Writer: Elaine May
Cast: Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane, Dianne Wiest, Dan Futterman, Calista Flockhart, Hank Azaria, Christine Baranski.
Director Mike Nichols and writer Elaine May kept their comedic duo hot streak going with the delightful slice of ‘90s comedy called The Birdcage, a remake of the ‘70s French-Italian film La Cage aux Folles (itself an adaptation of the play of the same title). Robin Williams and Nathan Lane play a longtime couple who live above the Birdcage, a drag club in South Beach, Florida. When Williams’ more buttoned-up son Dan Futterman announces he’s getting married to Calista Flockhart, Williams and Lane must do the thing you do and meet the parents. Just one problem: Flockhart’s parents are a super-conservative Senator and his super-conservative wife played by Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest. The resulting picture, while undoubtedly turning some “this is somewhat problematic” heads in modern eyes (Hank Azaria’s very flamboyant, Guatemalan housekeeper, for example), is an utter delight, a delicious champagne cocktail with powerhouse comedy performances from its leading roles. Watching Lane try to stuff his inner queerness and “play it straight” via John Wayne mimicry is equal parts hilarious and vulnerable, and Williams’ choreography notes to an over-emoting dancer are an MVP showpiece for a comedy career full of MVP showpieces. (collider)
- Some Like it Hot (Fanfare d’amour, France)
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder, I. A. L. Diamond
Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, George Raft, Joe E. Brown, Pat O’Brien.
Yes, that’s correct. One of the single greatest Hollywood films ever made, from one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, starring several of Hollywood’s greatest movie stars, is a friggin’ remake! Some Like it Not, one of Billy Wilder’s best films (a list that also includes, like, all of his films), was inspired by Fanfare d’amour, a French comedy about musicians who turn to drag to hide after witnessing a crime. Wilder takes this crackling premise and runs with it, resulting in a downright sprinting set of crackerjack narrative journeys that feel both contemporarily American in their “edgy for 1959” criminal exploits and salty gags (the film was made without approval from the Motion Picture Production Code), and classically French in their clockwork farce structures. Leading performers Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon have chemistry to burn, absolutely having the time of their lives rip-roaring through Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s barn-burner of a screenplay. Marilyn Monroe, perhaps the movie star, plays the role of Sugar Kane, the jazz singer Curtis and Lemmon perform with in drag, with self-aware, lived-in charm. All three leading performers feel unleashed, excited to play in this freer-than-usual world. If you have a friend who gripes about never wanting to watch old, black and white, classic films, Some Like it Hot is a great starter film, as it moves and grooves at a refreshingly zippy pace. (collider)
- True Lies (La Totale!, France)
Director: James Cameron
Writers: James Cameron, Randall Frakes
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Bill Paxton, Art Malik, Tia Carrere
The best James Cameron/Arnold Schwarzenegger collaboration is True Lies. Inspired by La Totale!, a French comedy about a husband hiding his identity as a secret agent, and a wife who is caught in the crossfire when he suspects she’s cheating on him. True Lies, featuring a Golden Globe-winning performance from Hall-of-Famer Jamie Lee Curtis, heightens this premise to all of its “1990s mega budget high-concept original action movie” glory. Cameron’s never really worked in a pure comedy space before, and while some of his attempts at straight humor play a touch sour (not to mention the film’s, and subgenre’s, over-reliance on jingoistic, xenophobic tendencies toward its Middle Eastern villains), I’m quite fond of the way he flips tones here, the way false identities and schemes cascade into set pieces of pure terror. Plus: Tom Arnold gives an earnestly nice performance as Arnie’s co-worker and friend, which is nice. (collider)
- Unfaithful (La Femme infidèle, France)
Director: Adrian Lyne
Writers: Alvin Sargent, William Broyles Jr.
Cast: Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Olivier Martinez, Erik Per Sullivan
This movie’s hot, and I don’t care who knows it! Unfaithful is inspired by the French thriller La Femme infidèle, and finds the king of the erotic thriller Adrian Lyne squarely back on his bullshit. Diane Lane, in an Academy Award-nominated performance, plays a happily enough married woman who meets stranger Olivier Martinez and, naturally, begins a torrid, steamy affair, including a sex-on-a-train sequence that will make you want to try sex-on-a-train for about three seconds, before you realize what a logistical nightmare that would be (those seats are too small!). Richard Gere plays Lane’s simpering husband, who grows deeply suspicious and jealous of Lane’s behavior, before resorting to shady private eyes and vicious acts of impulsive rage to try and settle the score. The plot’s machinations are catnip for genre fans who like this sort of thing (i.e. me), and Lyne and his DP Peter Biziou are the masters of this type of poppy, mature, pseudo-melodrama, toeing the line brilliantly between sincere quality and delightful camp. But the obvious star of the film is Lane, whose committed complexities oscillate between lust, disgust, fulfillment, and fear, garnering sympathy all the while. (collider)
- The Ring (Ringu, Japan)
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writer: Ehren Kruger
Cast: Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, Brian Cox
Koji Suzuki first released a novel called Ringu in 1991. Director Hideo Nakata adapted the work into a feature film in 1998. And director Gore Verbinski adapted both works into a new, American feature film in 2002. By some miracle, this international multimedia franchise works and terrifies in all of its nascent entries (disappointing American sequels excluded, of course), with Verbinski recognizing both the elemental and contemporary terrors of the material, and using those fundamental ideas to springboard into a new feeling tone and visual style. The premise of The Ring is simple, the stuff made of the best urban legends: There’s a cursed video tape being passed around, full of nasty images. If you watch it, you get a phone call saying you’ll die in seven days. And at the end of those seven days… before you die, you see “the ring,” the final image on this videotape. A journalist (Naomi Watts in the American version) is unlucky enough to view the tape, and tries to find out its secrets and save her skin. What results is a dreary, bleary, disquietingly surreal journey through familial traumas, vicious crimes, and prescient statements about humanity’s relationship to and weaponization of technology and survival tactics. (collider)
- Insomnia (Insomnia, Norway)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Hillary Seitz
Cast: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, Paul Dooley
By now, we’re saturated with three things: The work of Christopher Nolan, the thriller subgenre of “Nordic noir,” and all the ways the aesthetics of both have seeped into our mass culture.
Insomnia, based on the Norwegian thriller of the same name, stars Al Pacino as a dysfunctional detective on a murder case in Alaska, where the sun is always, always, always in the air, no matter the time of day. This results in a particularly nasty case of, um, “not sleeping,” resulting in both the accidental killing of a fellow cop (Martin Donovan), and the purposeful tauntings from his suspect: Robin Williams, delivering a nerve-bending performance of masterful understatement. Williams enjoys the mind games he’s playing with Pacino, to be sure, but he dials down his performance to a well-suited area of melancholy. Also — Hilary Swank delivers underrated work as the film’s conscience, a local cop who’s fond of Pacino’s police work, and wants desperately for him to stay off the edge of Hell. If the sunswept American nightmares of Fargo just ain’t dark enough for you, give Insomnia a spin. (collider)
Compiled by Michael Osuji
Featured Image credit to Wikipedia