If “Bangkok Dangerous,” with Nicolas Cage as a hitman in Bangkok moping over both his career choices and a girl, felt familiar — well, that’s probably because it’s derivative of many a sad assassin movie that’s come before. But it’s also a remake, and not just your run-of-the-mill Hollywood retread of a foreign film. “Bangkok Dangerous” finds Hong Kong-born sibling directing team Danny Pang and Oxide Pang Chun remaking their own debut, a 1999 Thai-language film of the same name, and joining that growing club of directors who’ve headed to the U.S. to try an English take on their own movie. While the set-up makes sense — subtitle-avoidant audiences here prefer a language and actors they’re familiar with, and who knows the ins and outs of a project better than whoever helmed it the first time out? — these remakes have a higher chance of stinkiness than the already dubious average redo. Here’s a look at five other titles that offer foreign filmmakers reshooting their own work in good ol’ American English.
The Vanishing (1993)
Original: Spoorloos (1988)
Director: George Sluizer
There are plenty of standout qualities in Sluizer’s icily good 1988 Dutch thriller about a vacationing woman who vanishes at a crowded French rest-stop, leaving her stricken boyfriend to spend the next three years searching for her. There’s the sunny horror of the scene of the disappearance, in which no one can be bothered to get involved with the panicking tourist; there’s the disturbing mundanity of the soon-revealed villain. And then there’s that ending, a real weekend-wrecker of a bleak (and yet completely deserved) finale. That dark conclusion, of course, had to go when Sluizer remade the film in the early 90s with Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock as the central couple. What replaced it was derided by most critics, with Roger Ebert noting that “The first movie was existential in its merciless unfolding. This one turns into a slasher movie with a cheap joke at the end.” Kim Newman, in an essay for the Criterionizing of the original film, speculates that “It may be that The Vanishing is a one-off: a film so original, so effective, so surprising and so ruthless that it represents a single, perfect coming-together of director, writer, subject, and cast.” Certainly nothing Sluizer has done since has approached the quality of “Spoorloos”; his next film, “The Chosen One,” stars one Rob Schneider.
Original: Nattevagten (1994)
Director: Ole Bornedal
When the 1997 version of “Nightwatch” opened in theaters, star Ewan McGregor was still white-hot from his career-making role in “Trainspotting.” Put him in movie set in a creepy locale with corpses and serial killers, have Steven Soderbergh adapt the script, and what could go wrong? There wasn’t even the weight of expectations to shoulder the original “Nattevagten” made the festival rounds and brought in big bucks in its native Denmark, only to be snatched up and shelved by the folks at Miramax, who were looking to protect their U.S. remake.
Both versions center on Martin (“New Amsterdam”‘s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the 1994 film), a law student who takes a job as a morgue night watchman, needing the money and figuring he could use the (far too) quiet time to study, only to find his sanity shattering as he becomes the main suspect in a series of murders. Unfortunately, the 1997 “Nightwatch” suffers from a surfeit of grime and a lack of any sense of intentional humor, though Nick Nolte’s scenery-chewing as a police inspector provides a bit of the other type. While no one would canonize the solid Danish original, it has a nastiness to it that’s watered down in the remake not, as you might expect, in the killer storyline, but in the sadistic game of “dare” played by Martin and his best friend (played by Kim Bodnia in the first film, Josh Brolin in the second). The stakes are adulthood first one to chicken out has to buckle down and marry his girlfriend and in “Nattevagten,” this leads to cover-your-eyes scenes like a blow-job from an underage hooker in a restaurant and vomiting during a church communion. In a way, “Nattevagten” asked for its own lukewarm U.S. incarnation in a few self-reflexive lines, Martin wonders if telling his girlfriend he loves her will sound “Iike a bad American movie.” Doomed! After “Nightwatch”‘s underperformance, Bornedal headed back to Denmark. His last film, “Just Another Love Story,” played at Sundance this year.
Just Visiting (2001)
Original: Les Visiteurs (1993)
Director: Jean-Marie PoirÃ©
Humor is way harder to translate than thrills or scares, but every few years someone forgets that and gives it a try. “Les Visiteurs” outgrossed “Jurassic Park” in France, an exceptionally broad comedy starring Jean Reno as a medieval count who’s sent forward in time to 1992 with his servant Jacquouille (played by co-writer Christian Clavier and transmuted to Jacquasse — hah…? — in the subtitles) due to a wizard’s spell gone wrong. Hijinks, temporal misunderstandings and toilet humor ensue. “Les Visiteurs” didn’t do well when it received a small U.S. release two years after its French one, but that didn’t stop Gallic studio Gaumont from exporting director Jean-Marie PoirÃ© and his stars, Jean Reno and Christian Clavier, to the U.S. for 2001’s “Just Visiting.” “Just Visiting” is essentially the exact same movie as “Les Visiteurs,” tamed from a R-rating to a PG-13, transplanted to Chicago, with Christina Applegate and Tara Reid playing the love interests. Not sold? Er, how about Malcolm McDowell as a wizard? Ultimately pulling in less than half its reported $35 million budget at the global box office, “Just Visiting” was an unqualified bomb as well as an unnecessary excuse for journalists to dust off dozens of creaky jokes about France’s inexplicable fondness for Jerry Lewis. And yet, it could have been worse — before the remake went into production, Miramax commissioned a dubbed version of “Les Visiteurs” that was overseen by Mel Brooks and apparently deemed unreleasable. One can only imagine.
Funny Games U.S. (2007)
Original: Funny Games (1997)
Director: Michael Haneke
In interviews, director Michael Haneke has been forthright about the reasoning behind his shot-for-shot U.S. remake of his 1997 Austrian film “Funny Games,” telling Time Out London: “The first film didn’t find its public among English-language viewers. So when I had the proposition to remake it I thought maybe we had an opportunity to reach the audience for which it was made: the violent consumer!” The violent consumer, alas, remained mostly unreached — “Funny Games U.S.” struggled over the $1 million mark, having cost a rumored $15 million to make. Maybe audiences didn’t want to be lectured to by the dour Haneke, even if those lectures were sans subtitles and illuminated by the star wattage of Naomi Watts as a wife who, along with her husband (Tim Roth) and child, finds her bourgeois day-to-day shattered by two polite young men in tennis whites who turn out to be sadistic sociopaths with tendencies to break the fourth wall. When the German-language original premiered at Cannes it was a truly divisive provocation that spurred debates on voyeurism and violence, but a decade later “Funny Games U.S.”‘s reused indictments of the audience seemed less fresh and curiously unreactive to the whole torture porn trend that had taken place in the years between the two films. Haneke headed back to Austria for his next project, a period drama called “The White Ribbon” that’ll be completed in 2009.
The Shaft (2001)
Original: De Lift (1983)
Director: Dick Maas
Two works: Killer elevator. In 1983 Dutch music video and film director Dick Maas attempted a horror movie about the most unlikely of menaces — an elevator in an office tower that first malfunctions and then begins killing people in the limited ways available to an in-building transportation device. A not-so-serious B-movie, “De Lift” is notable for its even more unlikely hero, an elevator repairman with an unhappy home life who persists in his investigation of the diabolical device even as it takes him into the realm of sci-fi conspiracies, mostly because it seems to be the only thing he’s good at.
“De Lift” isn’t a title you’d single out as screaming for a remake, but in 2001 it got one with “The Shaft” (aka “Down”), an ill-timed effort starring James Marshall, Naomi Watts, and the admirably shameless Michael Ironside and Ron Perlman, with Maas in the director’s chair for what was his second English-language feature (the first was William Hurt thriller “Do Not Disturb”). The action’s transported to fictional New York landmark the Millennium Building, where a naughty elevator traps and traumatizes a group of pregnant women into given birth and then terrorizes the building in other imaginative ways, while Marshall’s maintenance man struggles to figure out why (an organic computer is involved). With a higher budget than the 1983 original and a better-than-expected cast, “The Shaft” is broader and dumber, silly and fun, but in 2001 no one was in the market for a campy film about skyscraper deaths, particularly one with an unfortunate Twin Towers reference. “The Shaft” eventually went directly to DVD in 2003.
More for the pile: Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on”/”The Grudge,” Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu 2” and it’s semi-remake “The Ring Two” and Francis Veber’s “Les Fugitifs”/”Three Fugitives.”
[Photos: “Bangkok Dangerous,” Lionsgate, 2008; “The Vanishing,” Twentieth Century-Fox, 1993; “Nightwatch,” Dimension Films, 1998; “Just Visiting,” Buena Vista Pictures, 2001; “Funny Games U.S.,”, Warner Independent, 2008; “The Shaft,” Barnholtz Entertainment , 2001]