Why on earth would anyone want to remake Straw Dogs? Sam Peckinpah’s original film released in 1971 is a provocative disconcerting examination of man’s basest impulses. Its violence a source of some controversy when it was released seems relatively tame by today’s standards; its core assertion – that we’re all capable of the most extreme barbarism if pushed far enough – still unnerves. But it was very much a product of its time borne out of the social unrest and political upheaval of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The appeal – commercial and otherwise – of a modernized re-telling would seem perilously limited.
In the new version director Rod Lurie (Resurrecting the Champ The Contender) partly refashions Straw Dogs as a ham-fisted allegory for the increasingly acrimonious red state/blue state divide. It is exceedingly clear which side he’s on.
James Marsden plays David Sumner a Hollywood screenwriter who moves with his actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) to her hometown of Blackwater Mississippi after her father’s death. Their stay is intended as only temporary long enough for them to prepare the family home for sale and for David to finish his latest screenplay about the siege of Stalingrad.
Blackwater presents more or less the prototypical (i.e. clichéd) Hollywood vision of a rural Deep South town populated with scruffy churlish yokels who instinctively recoil at anything resembling sophistication. Gun racks and confederate flags and “These Colors Don’t Run” bumper stickers abound. David with his vintage Jaguar credit cards and polysyllabic vocabulary incurs immediate resentment. David’s thinly-veiled condescension doesn’t help matters.
Everywhere he goes David is eyed with suspicion and made to feel unwelcome.
Hoping to ingratiate himself with the townsfolk he hires a local construction crew headed by Amy’s handsome ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) to repair a barn damaged during a recent storm. The men prove less-than-stellar workers drinking on the job leaving early to go hunting and brazenly treading about the house as if they own it. Equivocal by nature David is loath to confront them and Charlie and the boys seize on his timidity. Their provocations soon adopt a more sinister face.
Straw Dogs like its predecessor is built around a climactic final “siege” of the Sumner house when David surrounded on all sides by men intent on taking everything he has is finally driven to fight back. But whereas Pekinpah’s film filled the preceding minutes with scene after scene of troubling moral complexity Lurie’s version can only offer unremitting tedium. His Straw Dogs is more than anything else a terminal bore. At 110 minutes it is actually shorter than the original but it feels a good deal longer. Even a pivotal rape scene – in which the victim’s consent is ever-so-briefly implied – and some virtuoso scenery-chewing from James Woods playing an alcoholic ex-football coach can’t breathe much life into this empty mundane film.
Assuming you’ll be able to understand about half of what’s being said due to the mumbling and thick accents here’s the gist of this Miami Vice: James “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are the unsmiling leaders of a top-notch Miami-Dade vice squad whose job it is to take down the bad guys. But when they go deep undercover to expose yet another global drug cartel—which includes factions of the Aryan brotherhood (nice bunch)--their lives are put on the line especially after Crockett ends up falling for Chinese-Cuban Isabella (Gong Li) an intoxicating player for the other side. So back and forth we go: The good guys have the drugs; the bad guys want them back; the boys drive speed boats real fast have sex with their girls in the shower—blah blah blah—until finally some action. And when it all goes down it goes down hard. [Cue the synthetic drum solo.] Although you do miss a bit of that Don Johnson spirit Farrell and Foxx actually hold up just fine as the re-envisioned Crockett and Tubbs minus the jovial rapport and pink T-shirts. They look good in the Armani suits with stubbly faces and the dark sunglasses talking the talk and wielding firearms like pros. Everyone around them are equally Vice-esque especially the two female detectives—Trudy Joplin and Gina Calabrese—brought back from the original show. Played by Naomie Harris (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) and Elizabeth Rodriguez (Blow) respectively these girls simply kick ass. The only one who sticks out like a sore thumb is Gong Li. She looks the part—all steely and indifferent—but once the accomplished Chinese actress (Memoirs of a Geisha) opens her mouth she is way out of her element. It’s actually cringe-worthy watching her try to be tough speaking languages (even Spanish) she is not at all familiar with. And on top of that Gong and Farrell have zero chemistry making their supposedly steamy love scenes tepid indeed. What a waste of good-looking skin. Michael Mann is arguably one of the best writer/directors of crime drama today having crafted such sleek hard-hitters as Heat and Collateral. Returning to the innovative ‘80s show that helped put him on the map must have been a no-brainer even if he was reluctant to do it at first. Apparently Mann wanted to make Vice originally as a gritty feature film but got pigeonholed by the network. Maybe that was good thing because in holding back a bit Mann managed to make it one of the coolest crime series ever combining pulse-racing action with synergized music. But after getting burnt out by the network grind Mann is back to revisit the Vice world again taking it in the direction he originally planned. This Miami Vice is a hard cruel place almost too serious. There’s the little Mann stamps all over it—the overhead shots the clipped dialogue the grainy night vistas—but what’s happened between the first Vice and now is how tired the subject matter has become. Undercover cops/drug smuggling movies are old hat something we’ve seen played out hundreds of times before. And unfortunately Mann offers nothing new. Maybe he should have just left well enough alone.
We meet the two very unlikely sisters while each are having sex. Rose Feller (Toni Collette) is a successful lawyer who is sleeping with her boss and thinking of ways it can improve her career. Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz) is a party girl and at her 10-year high school reunion--after trying to have a fling in a bathroom stall--she ends up puking instead. Inevitably Maggie gets kicked out of her dad and stepmother's house and winds up on the doorstep of her sister. The Feller girls were close once when they were young girls especially after their mentally unstable mother died. But now their grown-up personalities clash rather dramatically. And when Maggie seriously crosses the line by seducing Rose's new boyfriend the straw is broken. Forced out Maggie stumbles upon some birthday cards from a long-lost grandmother and decides to go hit her up for cash. Turns out Grandma Ella (Shirley MacLaine) lives in a senior citizen's community in Florida that gets its humor from Golden Girls re-runs. Maggie may ingratiate herself within this new environment but isn't any more redeemed by reconnecting with Ella. She still acts like a petulant child. But rather than throwing her out Ella along with the gang of old folk forces Maggie to take some responsibility.
Collette (The Sixth Sense) is fantastic as the frumpy pudgy Philadelphia lawyer who gives up everything so she can walk dogs and lead a simpler life. But she's done this many times before--and honestly is so much better than Muriel's Wedding. Diaz (my personal favorite Charlie's Angel) doesn't need to stretch too far to play a conniving ditz with a heart. This is her There's Something About Mary role albeit a tad more screwed-up with a sister and lost grandma. So that leaves MacLaine as the saving grace for any worthwhile acting in this movie. Despite the obvious shuffleboard clichés--and the occasional leers at Diaz by the old guys around the pool--when the old folk are around the film gets lively and tolerable believe it or not. MacLaine leads the way with the quips and barbs but in a more subtle way than we are used to from this usually eccentric actress. The supporting cast of cranky cronies have some great moments especially veteran actor Norman Lloyd as the blind professor who teaches Maggie a thing or two about manners trust and family.
If this were Nora Ephron directing that would have been one thing but coming from Curtis Hanson the Oscar-winner who gave us L.A. Confidential it just doesn't mesh. Hanson can do quirky (Wonder Boys) he can do adventure (The River Wild) he can do hard-hittin' rap stories (8 Mile) and he can even do scary (Hand That Rocks the Cradle) but why in the world would he attempt a saccharine-soaked female family story that threatens to be a Crimes of the Heart tear-jerker? Screenwriter Susannah Grant who adapted In Her Shoes from Jennifer Weiner's popular bestseller of the same name also wrote Erin Brockovich and 28 Days. She understands strong female characters but there's still a major layer of sugar coating that Hanson can't scrape off. He doesn't tone anything down from Grant's script--not the overly cute dogs nor the embarrassing bridal shower nor the expected moments of guilt-tripping between the ladies. Instead he plods through the paint-by-number script and wraps it all up nicely into a crowd-pleasing film that is ultimately forgettable.