(In honor of Super 8 and Bad Teacher, this week’s Five For Friday highlights movies that took clear inspiration from other movie phenomena, but managed to be worth the time anyway.)
Travis: 2 Days In The Valley
There were a glut of Tarantino knockoffs after the success of Reservoir Dogs and especially Pulp Fiction, trying to find the same mix of pop-culture-laden dialogue, violence, and often SoCal scenery. 2 Days in the Valley isn’t a good movie by any means, but it does have James Spader as an assassin, a young and naked Charlize Theron (in her first film role) as his gun moll, and a catfight between Theron and co-star Teri Hatcher. Not a bad way to pass a couple of hours.
Decent Hollywood action hinged for a good ten years or so on the high-concept pitch “Die Hard on <a transportation vehicle.>” The best of the bunch was Speed, a fantastic summer blockbuster that everybody saw, and that launched the major-studio careers of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, while providing Dennis Hopper with a ham-earned paycheck.
Nathan: A Fistful Of Dollars
There’s no official credit to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars is a remake if ever there was one. Thankfully, it’s almost as memorable as the original. Eastwood is both iconic and great. The film is a fun predecessor to Leone’s true masterpiece, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
The New Wave of Hong Kong cinema that produced the epic, stylish B-movies of John Woo (he’s here later on) and others also produced a lot of workmanlike retreads of Hollywood fare, some of which turned out to, with a bit of flair and a lot more grit, be just as entertaining as their predecessors. Foremost among this is the Kirk Wong film Gunmen, which is basically the Brian DePalma (he’s here too) version of the Untouchables story, moved to Hong Kong in the 1920s. It’s violent, harsh, stylish, and moves at a quicker pace than DePalma’s film, which basically defines Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and 1990s as compared to American movies in general.
Tyler: Wait Until Dark
Hitchcock knockoffs persist to this day, but one of the best is one of the oldest, 007-flick director Terence Young’s manipulation of Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin into one of the scariest damn psychological thrillers you’ll see this side of The Silence Of the Lambs.
Nathan: Mean Girls
Right before Lindsay Lohan dropped into a tabloid-ready vortex, she was in a clever and funny teen comedy that had some major similarities to Heathers. Yes, Heathers is the better film, but Mean Girls at least has the distinction of being an intelligent entry into the teen movie genre. Unfortunately, Lohan would never fulfill the promise that she showed. Tina Fey, on the other hand, has continued to deliver on a regular basis.
Travis: Blow Out
A harsh critic might say that Brian DePalma’s entire film career is a dedicated knockoff of all of his cinematic heroes, from Eisenstein to Hitchcock and beyond to more Hitchcock. Blow Out, one of his strongest thrillers, is a not-quite-remake of Antonioni’s Blow Up that is more interesting and entertaining than the original.
Go copies Pulp Fiction straight down to the convoluted three-thread structure. It’s also almost as fun, and uses “Magic Carpet Ride” about as well as any movie ever could.
Nathan: The Man Who Wasn’t There
When the Coen Bros. released this 2001 movie, audiences and critics attacked it for being a carbon copy of the Hollywood noirs of the 40’s and 50’s. Yeah, that’s what it is, and it’s all the better for it. The Man Who Wasn’t There is a shadowy exploration of the ways of fate in the life of a barber. Billy Bob Thornton is at his stoic best. James M. Cain would’ve been proud.
Travis: A Fistful Of Dollars/Last Man Standing
Dollars is the more well-regarded knockoff of Akira Kurosawa’s seminal wandering samurai film, Yojimbo. The movie that basically invented the spaghetti western, signifying all of the styles that would become clichés, was a very direct rip of Kurosawa’s film, barely even changing the setting of what was basically an Eastern Western in the first place. Last Man Standing is even more blatant, a copy of a copy, with Bruce Willis in the Mifune/Eastwood role, and shouldn’t be nearly as entertaining as it is. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in genre bloodletting, with Walter Hill, maybe the king of genre bloodletting, at the helm.
Tyler: Tin Cup
Kevin Costner and Bull Durham scribe/director Ron Shelton had each reached their own set of personal straits in the mid-’90s, so they re-did Durham on a scratch golf course with the help of Cheech Marin and a pre-Thomas Crown Rene Russo, before she got all into the personal stylists and injected botulism. Cup‘s a damn funny movie, and sexy to boot.
Spielberg does Kubrick, and he does Kubrick well. Spielberg has been accused of infantilism, manipulation, and gross sentimentality; all of which are true to a certain extent (with mitigating factors, of course), A.I. showed us that has more in his directorial chops than any most of us could’ve ever imagined. He was able to mimic Kubrick’s style in the best possible ways. There are touches in the film that definitely belong to Spielberg alone, but the film is cold and even depressing in a way that no other Spielberg movie approaches. Many people approached it as if it were a Steven Spielberg film when it was released, and hated it. If we think of it as a Kubrick film, it makes so much more sense.
Travis: Bullet In The Head
John Woo’s Vietnam film is more serious and grounded in realism than the films he’s most known for, The Killer and Hard-Boiled. There are still operatic action set-pieces, and it’s still over-the-top in places, but it’s also a pretty harrowing account of some Hong Kong youths who get mixed up in the conflict in Vietnam after impulsively trying to make money as war profiteering crooks. The knockoff comes in one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, which is almost shot-for-shot, and definitely idea-for-idea, from what is possibly the best Vietnam film ever, The Deer Hunter. The fact that this scene was almost wholly lifted lessens Bullet a bit, but it is still an excellent film.
Tyler: To Have And Have Not
Fishing buddies Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway made a bet about what was the superior medium, film or prose. Hawks bet Hemingway that Hawks could turn Hemingway’s worst novel into a great film. In doing so, Hawks rewrote and remade Casablanca, and did it better than the original movie. I can’t say I’ve ever read the book. The film is one of my favorites of all time.
Nathan: Kill Bill (Vols. 1 & 2)
The most common criticism of Quentin Tarantino’s work is that he does little but steal from the genius of others and pawn it off as his own. In a sense, that criticism is right. Kill Bill takes from just about every classic kung-fu movie that you could think of and from some that are, uh…no-so-classic. This is not a case of someone being subconsciously influenced by something. It’s mash-up art. The truth, though, is that you could go through every 70s kung-fu movie that Kill Bill riffs on and never find anything quite like Kill Bill. Its violence is almost an exercise in abstract art. Seen as one whole movie, Kill Bill is Tarantino’s magnum opus….until he releases Django Unchained.