Tuesday, February 01, 2011

True to the Grit

A remake of a classic film is a double-edged sword to be sure. On one hand you have the purist mentality that sides in favor of the original, as if another version of the same material, especially one of an iconic nature is somehow sacrilegious and will tarnish its image if even attempted. History bears this out as many a remake, re-imagining, rehash, rerun has been handled without the necessary ingredients: script, direction, passion, point. Do these horrid attempts to cash in on the good names of the initial offerings besmirch their good names? Not necessarily. Many times, it makes them stand out so much more. However, clogging the system with crap of the same name can bury the original under a pile of trash and a movie-going public, without any sense of historical perspective, will never knows the pleasures of a great old film because, well, the new one sucks.

In the case of TRUE GRIT, you have a new version of Charles Portis' novel that follows the source material much closer than the Henry Hathaway version from 1969 which featured the Academy Award winning performance by John Wayne. This version is almost the swan song of a bygone era all of its own-the typical Hollywood western and few did it better in the 1960s better than Hathaway. With HOW THE WEST WAS WON (of which he shared duties with John Ford and George Marshall), NEVADA SMITH and THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER with The Duke, Hathaway was a real A-list studio talent with a style that was rapidly going out of fashion as he turned the last corner into the 1970s. Along with Wayne, GRIT starred a too-old Kim Darby as Mattie Ross, though she bring a lot of gumption to the role. Then there's Glen Campbell as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf who is green as a dollar bill in the acting department, though he isn't the embarrassment he could have been. For some reason, the studio-or Wayne himself-stuck the Duke with a lot of pop singers in his westerns to supposedly boost the box office draw, using with less than middling results-Ricky Nelson in RIO BRAVO, Frankie Avalon in THE ALAMO, Fabian in NORTH TO ALASKA, Bobby Vinton in BIG JAKE. The supporting players featured a fine cast of character actors including Robert Duvall as Lucky Ned Pepper, Jeff Corey and a just moments before EASY RIDER Dennis Hopper. Hathaway's take on Portis delivers the goods in a grand style that just screams Hollywood studio system, but still manages to remain true to the source in a roundabout way that doesn't insult the material, even if it does shine it to a high gloss. As for The Duke, he really does pull out the stops one last time, one of the few characters he allowed himself to play without being, well, The Duke. He really could be a damn good actor if he tried and his Rooster would a high benchmark to aim for any future interpretations. I really get a kick out of his exit line: "Well, come see a fat old man sometime!" before riding off into the sunset once more time.

As adapted and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the 21st century TRUE GRIT adheres to Portis' book and pays ever so slight homage to its first incarnation in very satisfying ways. In fact, when the final shootout occurs with the same dialogue, it is as rousing a film moment as any I've felt in the past five years, since it combines the best of all three worlds to make one for the ages. The tone of the film is somber, but playful, in keeping with the Coen Brothers style. The look of GRIT is splendidly bleak with cinematography by Roger Deakins, the best in the business. My only criticism lies with the editing, the Coens cutting way too sharply occasionally from scene to scene, upsetting the flow in places. This weight of the story falls on the strength of the Mattie Ross character, played this time by the believably feisty Hailee Steinfeld, who rises to the challenge like an old pro. She is one of the best young acting discoveries in ages. Matt Damon elevates the LaBoeuf role into something to be cherished, a fine supporting turn that reminds us again of what fine work he is capable of doing, even if he doesn't sing the title song. (Advantage: Campbell!) And Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper (a descendant perhaps?) is much like the movie itself, a mash-up of both Robert Duvall from the first and Henry Dean Stanton. And of course Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn with such an infectiously ornery spirit that makes one forget that he's really something to be feared-a raging alcoholic with a badge and a gun. In the end, Bridges finds the heart and soul of Rooster and the real hero within. I see Bridges' Rooster as an elder version of his character in Robert Benton's BAD COMPANY, a sensational and underrated western from the early seventies that has much in common with this TRUE GRIT. Bridges' long career culminates in the last couple of years, but I think if he hadn't won an Oscar last year, he would have for this performance, much like The Duke himself.

If I had a preference-the Coke vs Pepsi Challenge where I would have to choose one over the other, I'd have to give to the Coens. They've made the best oater (as Variety used to call westerns) certainly of this new decade, a dubious honor to be sure since there have been, what, this one, jJONAH HEX and a couple on the Hallmark Channel? But this TRUE GRIT proves that westerns are still a viable cinematic genre, especially where it counts for Hollywood-at the box office. Maybe remakes are the only way new westerns can get the green light in this day and age, other than something like COWBOYS VS ALIENS. If so, they might at well continue panning for gold in the John Wayne catalog.

RIO BRAVO, anybody?
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