When Obscure Movies Become More Obscured by Bad Remakes

By  · Published on April 6th, 2017

Some fine original works are going even further out of style.

Remakes, they tell us, do no harm to the original works. The first movie will always be there for us to enjoy. I admit, I’m one of “they,” constantly defending the idea, particularly when the new version has something fresh to say while using an old framework. Fright Night recycled a horror classic and set it in the context of the housing crisis. The RoboCop redo takes on the issue of drones. But both of these performed poorly in all regards compared to their predecessors, and that was fine. Diehard fans of the originals just went on being diehard fans of the originals, no problem.

There are surely fans of the 1979 caper Going in Style but not on the same level. Despite receiving positive reviews and being a modest box office hit, the movie hadn’t had much of a legacy until Warner Bros. announced a remake five years ago. The new version is receiving mostly negative reviews and is not expected to perform as well in theaters. Chances are, the remake will not go out in style, instead becoming as forgotten as the original. If the title is thought about after this year, though, the newer version will be the one recalled by more people. Is that harmful to the better original? Maybe.

At least for a short time, the original Going in Style, which was directed by Martin Brest and stars George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg as three bored old men who decide to rob a bank, gets some attention. Curious movie fans with enough time on their hands may be alerted to or reminded of its existence and then give it a look (it’s only $2 to rent on Amazon, albeit in standard definition). And film critics who haven’t seen it or want a refresher will watch it in order to reference it and maybe compare it to the remake in their review. Maybe they’ll recommend it in addition or instead.

The new Going in Style probably could have been a remake in idea only, thereby honoring the original’s good name. Its plot is changed enough. Directed by Zach Braff, this time the elder trio of robbers is played by Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, and Morgan Freeman, and now they’re given a more substantial and contemporary reason for their crime: the company they worked for was bought, and their pensions were lost in the deal, so they’re out to score only the exact amount they’re owed. The remake sounds more in tune with last year’s acclaimed Hell or High Water, but comedic.

The difference between the original and the remake is almost as significant, maybe more so, than the difference between the 1987 teen movie Three O’Clock High and Fist Fight, the recently released comedy that has been acknowledged as inspired by, if not directly sourced from, the former. Three O’Clock High remains a rather obscure work but at least its title wasn’t tarnished by Fist Fight when the new movie came and went with little interest or acclaim. Derivative comedies should do as Fist Fight did, because their premises can be so basic yet pliable. Look at how many movies essentially rehash Some Like It Hot yet manage to not be official remakes.

A lot of people going to see Going in Style this weekend don’t and won’t know it’s even a remake, nor will they care. This happens more often than you’d think. For all the complaints about how many remakes there are these days, few of the objectors even know the half of it. I try to highlight both the known and obscure at the start of the year — my 2017 guide shows that other lesser-known movies with new remakes include 1932’s Broken Lullaby and 2013’s The Dinner (as the smaller-scale films Frantz and The Dinner, respectively). Not everything is nostalgia bait a la Beauty and the Beast; it’s likely that a majority of the lackluster box office gross for CHiPs came from people who weren’t even aware, let alone fans, of the TV series it’s based on.

When Remakes Can’t Escape the Original

Even if I tell you that the original Going in Style is worth checking out in place of the remake, if you’re not interested in a caper involving old guys robbing a bank anyway, you’ll probably just ignore both. It’s not quite like the pleas to support an anime feature deserving of mainstream recognition particularly to squash its racially insensitive live-action remake, as in the case of Ghost in the Shell. And it’s not as exemplary or essential as Sleepless Night, the French thriller remade this year as the already forgotten Sleepless. The original Going in Style is very good but not requisite.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.