Thursday, December 30, 2010


Remaking a classic movie is often a risky proposition. More often than not, Hollywood filmmakers aim high but wind up shooting low. "O, Brother Where Art Thou?" co-writer and directors Ethan and Joel Coens' remake of director Henry Hathaway's "True Grit" (1969), with John Wayne in his only Oscar winning performance, qualifies as the exception to the rule. Not only do the Coens aim high, but they also hit the bull's-eye. Ostensibly, they have done a splendid job with their first horse opera, and Jeff Bridges has filled some mighty big boots without stumbling. Strictly speaking, the Coens' "True Grit" (***1/2 OUT OF ****) isn't the first remake. Few remember director Richard T. Heffron's TV remake of "True Grit" with character actor Warren Oates donning the eye patch as Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Heffron's 1978 television pilot for a proposed TV series went belly up. Meanwhile, the salient differences between Hathaway's version and the Coens' remake boils down to the differences in the respective performances between Wayne and Bridges. Mind you, Bridges doesn't impersonate Wayne so much as deliver his own interpretation of the cantankerous protagonist from author Charles Portis' western bestseller. Indeed, Bridges sports his eye patch over his right eye rather than the left as Wayne did. The Coens have gone back to the Charles Portis novel and shifted the emphasis from the pugnacious Cogburn to plucky teenage heroine Mattie Ross.

When family man Frank Ross is gunned down in cold blood in Fort Smith, Arkansas, his 14-year old daughter Mattie (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) leaves her ranch in Yell County near Dardanelle to avenge his death. Hired hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin of "Jonah Hex") murdered the Ross patriarch, robbed him, stole his horse and then disappeared into the Indian Territory. The Indian Territory here is what eventually became the state of Oklahoma . Mattie arrives in Fort Smith by train determined to bring her father's killer to justice. She learns that the Fort Smith authorities have issued a warrant on Chaney. Unfortunately, they can't arrest Chaney since the Indian nation lies beyond their jurisdiction. Eventually, Mattie finds the right man to help her. U.S. Marshal Reuben J. Cogburn, better known thereabouts as 'Rooster,' is described to her by the sheriff as "a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking." The sheriff adds that Rooster craves liquor. Mattie manages to recruit Rooster (Jeff Bridges of "The Big Lebowski") with an offer to pay him $100. About that time an upstart, cocksure Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon of "The Departed"), shows up and derails Mattie's plans. LaBoeuf convinces Rooster to leave Mattie behind. Chaney, it seems, shot a Texas senator, and LaBeouf has been tracking him for the enormous reward that the family will pay. LaBoeuf promises to share the reward with Rooster.

Tenacious little Mattie refuses to be left behind. She pursues Rooster and LaBoeuf, swims her horse across a treacherous river, and demands that the marshal return her money. She threatens to prosecute Rooster for betraying her, and LaBoeuf gives her a spanking to silence her. The sight of LaBoeuf whipping the poor teen changes Rooster's mind, and he allows Mattie to ride along with them. A disgusted LaBoeuf parts company with them. Later, Rooster and Mattie sneak up on two grubby gunmen inside a remote cabin. Rooster shoots one of them after the other kills his criminal cohort. The two outlaws fell out with each other after the younger one informed Rooster that they were holding fresh horses for notorious outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper. When Ned (Barry Pepper of "Saving Private Ryan") and his gang show up at the cabin, they run into LaBoeuf. LaBoeuf finds himself caught up in the cross-fire between Rooster and Ned. Accidentally, Rooster wounds LaBoeuf in the melee, and Ned escapes. Inexplicably, this is the only scene that the Coens changed substantially that Portis did not have in his novel.

Mattie cannot believe they have lost their only lead to Tom Chaney. Earlier, the Fort Smith authorities said that Chaney had thrown in with Ned and helped rob a train. Everybody is set to ride their separate ways when Mattie stumbles onto Chaney. She has gone to the river to fetch water for Rooster when she encounters Chaney. Without a qualm, Mattie brandishes her father's black powder revolver and shoots Chaney. The villainous Chaney survives Mattie's shot and takes her prisoner. Ned rides up and warns Rooster that he will kill Mattie if Rooster doesn't ride off. Ned leaves Mattie with Chaney and warns the outlaw to refrain from harming her. Naturally, Chaney has other ideas. Anybody who has seen the original knows about the infamous snake pit scene when Mattie tumbles into the craggy rocks and gets snake bitten. The consequences are more realistic in this version.

You'll have to look long and hard to complain about the differences between the Coens' "True Grit" and the Hathaway original. Sure, some differences are obvious. Ultimately, however, those differences don't amount to much. The opening and the ending scenes differ. The original "True Grit" dramatized the exposition that opens the new "True Grit." Mattie appears as a fully grown woman in the ending. Bridges doesn't leap a four-rail fence with his horse, and co-star Matt Damon fares better than country music crooner Glen Campbell did in the Wayne version. Actually, Damon winds up in what constitutes a supporting role rather than a co-starring role. Josh Brolin is probably too luminous a star to be shoe-horned into his cameo as the villain that character actor Jeff Corey created. Barry Pepper has a difficult time banishing the memory of Robert Duvall who played the first Lucky Ned Pepper. As Mattie Ross, Hailee Steinfeld is closer in actual age to the heroine than 21-year old Kim Darby was in the first film. The audiences that may be most upset with the new "True Grit" will likely be those who have seen every Coen movie. "True Grit" doesn't bristle with their usual trademark helping of irony and eccentricity. Surprisingly, for a change, the Coens play things pretty much straight down the line. In other words, their remake of the Hathaway classic is reverential.