LOS ANGELES — This is one of those weeks is which five choices aren't nearly enough. We're talking about unnecessary remakes, which pretty much means ... all of them.
Rare is the remake that actually improves on the original — this year's "The Mechanic" with Jason Statham springs to mind. But the original versions of "Assault on Precinct 13" or "The Longest Yard" or "The Taking of Pelham 123," for example, were just fine on their own, and in their own time.
With this week bringing new versions of "Conan the Barbarian" and "Fright Night," we're going to focus on movies that never should have been touched. Stop me if you think you've heard this one before:
— "Psycho" (1998): Pretty much no one should go near Alfred Hitchcock, ever. But if you're daring enough to try, you should avoid doing a shot-by-shot remake of what is probably the master's best-known film. Still, you've got to admire Gus Van Sant's chutzpah. He shot it in color — that's different — and added a few slight tweaks. Vince Vaughn plays the iconic Anthony Perkins role of Norman Bates and Anne Heche fills in for Janet Leigh as Marion Crane. But other than that, it's the same characters, same dialogue, same camera angles, even the same Bernard Hermann score from 1960. It's an intriguing exercise but, ultimately, a noble failure.
— "City of Angels" (1998): Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" (1987) is a modern classic, and it featured one of the greatest performances by the late Peter Falk. Melancholy, thoughtful and visually arresting, it followed unseen angels who watched over Berlin, observing people's actions, listening to their thoughts, quietly shaping their lives. "City of Angels," by comparison, was too obvious — it spelled everything out, its emotions were too tidy. Brad Silberling turned this subtle story into a simple romantic comedy starring Nicolas Cage (as an angel) and Meg Ryan (as a heart surgeon), two actors who make absolutely no sense together.
— "The Women" (2008): George Cukor's 1939 cat fight, based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce, was intended as a satire of society mavens and their frivolous lives. In directing for the first time and writing the script, "Murphy Brown" creator Diane English made it a celebration. Sure, it had an all-female cast of solid actresses (Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Cloris Leachman), as did the original, though perhaps not quite the stellar collection that included Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell. Cukor's tone and timing were missing; English applied all the lighthearted instincts of her sitcom background and seemingly none of the insights of the source material.
— "The Invasion" (2007): There've been many versions of the sci-fi classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," but this one had the least bite. Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Jeffrey Wright went to waste as a few of the last citizens who managed to remain uninfected when a gloopy substance from outer space took over the population, turning people into emotionless drone versions of themselves. The whole point of this story has always been to serve as a reflection of its times, whether it's making a statement about McCarthyism (1956) or Vietnam and Watergate (1978). This time, there were passing TV news references to the war in Iraq and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, but the film's political ideology felt tossed-in and half-baked. Worst of all, it wasn't the slightest bit scary or suspenseful.
— "The Karate Kid" (2010): This is admittedly a personal, nostalgic choice. But for anyone who grew up in the '80s, "The Karate Kid" inspires a deep fondness. Harold Zwart's version maintained the basic structure and even some key details, like the sweep-the-leg moment in the finale. It moved the setting from Los Angeles to Beijing, that's no big deal. The main problem was the casting of Jaden Smith, who was several years younger than Ralph Macchio was and looks even younger. And so neither the fighting nor the romance with a girl who's out of his league — two key components of "The Karate Kid" — made sense.