[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]
True Grit has been rightfully celebrated for the last few months, though few critics have expressed the appropriate surprise at how well this remake turned out. Lest we forget, the last time the Coen brothers remade someone else’s movie, they churned out their unquestionable worst, a juvenile reimagining of Alexander Mackendrick’s scabrous Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. Technically, True Grit is less a movie remake than a second try at filming the wonderful Charles Portis source novel, but the irony here is that the Coens’ Ladykillers is a more ambitious, clever concept for a film than their admittedly beautiful western. Alas, the movie itself is utterly half-assed, the only time that can be said of a Coen brothers picture.
The Mackendrick film’s plot and imagery both rely on the timely, English steam trains that always seem to be within earshot of the action, and the Coens found a wonderful cultural-historical parallel by setting the new movie along the Mississippi River. It was equally thoughtful to cast Tom Hanks, a kind of American Alec Guinness, to play the Guinness role, particularly since both actors clearly relish every ludicrous line of dialogue as they play scheming villains against type. And the occasional performance scenes of a black gospel choir are some of the most purely joyful, documentary moments in any Coen brothers film. But the filmmakers apparently made a few excellent artistic decisions and then phoned everything else in.