Remaking Point Blank

By Tim Applegate

Tim Applegate is a poet and freelance writer in western Oregon. His poems regularly appear in various national publications. He is also a frequent contributor to the online film journals Kamera and 24 Frames Per Second.



Point Blank

Even a cursory examination of a database of recent movie remakes confirms a reviewer's suspicions: not only are the number of remakes steadily increasing, most of them, as usual, pale in artistic comparison to their originals. In the last eighteen months alone we've seen, among others, an inferior reconstruction of the 1969 English cult favorite The Italian Job, Guy Ritchie's ill-conceived (to put it mildly) update of Lina Wertmuller's Swept Away (1975), Steven Soderbergh's ponderous re-imagining of Andrei Tarkovsky's science fiction masterpiece Solaris (1972), Christopher Nolan's disappointing Insomnia (based on a 1997 Norwegian thriller of the same name), and Jonathan Demme's uninspired revamping of Stanley Donen's charming 1963 comic lark Charade (The Truth About Charlie). Tracking back a few years we uncover such dubious gems as Tim Burton's Planet Of The Apes (2001), Sylvester Stallone's lame attempt to step into Michael Caine's shoes in Get Carter (2000), and a feeble remake of Fred Zinnemann's elegant 1973 thriller The Day Of The Jackal (The Jackal, 1997). In addition, we discover in our list not only the expected hackwork from familiar movie studio guns for hire - Martin Brest's Meet Joe Black (1998), Jan De Bont's The Haunting (1999) - but also a surprising number of sub-par efforts from such world-class directors as Martin Scorsese (Cape Fear, 1991) and Gus Van Sant (Psycho, 1998).

Of course not every movie remake is a bad idea, and there are even a few instances when the reworking of a good story provides its own rewards. Although some purists would argue the point, Philip Kaufman's Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978) added texture - and a welcome sense of irony - to Don Siegel's 1956 original. Philip Noyce's recent adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American is a marked improvement on Joseph Mankiewicz's 1958 version. Scott McGehee and David Siegel's underrated The Deep End (2001), buoyed by Tilda Swinton's revelatory performance, successfully modernized Max Ophul's interesting, if flawed, 1949 film noir The Reckless Moment. David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) was certainly more memorable than its campy predecessor (1958). And lest we forget, 1941's beloved The Maltese Falcon was not the first rendition of that story to reach the screen; it was the third. And yet in each of these examples it is surely no coincidence that the original pictures, while possessing merits of their own, were hardly masterworks. Simply put, the better the original the less chance the remake will succeed. Which brings us to Point Blank, the audacious late sixties crime classic, and its vastly inferior 1999 remake Payback.

When it was first released in 1967, John Boorman's Point Blank was largely ignored at the box office, and greeted with dismay, and dismissal, by many leading critics of the time. Heavily influenced by the young upstart directors of the French New Wave (in particular Godard and Resnais) and their reverence for the concept of the "pure image", Boorman's movie was strikingly visual, kinetically edited, and sexually charged. A complex tale of betrayal and revenge, the movie surprised its audience with a fractured time-line, disconcerting narrative rhythms (long stretches of almost Bergmanesque silence followed by sudden outbursts of violence) and a carefully calculated - and highly unusual for the time - use of film space. While the picture failed to capture the imagination of most moviegoers, it certainly caught the attention of other filmmakers, and over the years its influence, and its stature, has grown.

After a stunning opening sequence in which the central character Walker (Lee Marvin) is double-crossed, shot, and left for dead, Boorman begins to fill in the gaps. In a series of sharply edited flashbacks we are introduced to Walker's unfaithful wife Lynne (Sharon Acker), his wife's lover Mal Reese (played by the exemplary character actor John Vernon, in his film debut), and their plot to rob a cash drop on Alcatraz Island. We are also introduced, in these
early scenes, to the frenetic, jazzy style of filmmaking Boorman sustains throughout the rest of the picture.

Based on The Hunter, a tough-as-nails 1962 novel by Richard Stark, Point Blank is the story of Walker's quest to recover the money Acker and Vernon have stolen from him. Along the way Walker confronts his wife, his sister-in-law Chris (Angie Dickinson), and finally Reese, who is living in Los Angeles under the protection of the Mob. In the end the trail winds back to Alcatraz, where the story began. It's a classically structured tale told in postmodern, almost dreamlike terms. And it is one of the keystone American movies of the late sixties. Decades before directors like Baz Luhrmann and Quentin Tarantino were hailed as innovators, Boorman and his fellow countrymen Richard Lester (Petulia, 1968), John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, 1969), and Nicholas Roeg (Performance, 1970) employed daring film techniques (flashbacks and forwards, jump cuts, freeze frames, slow-motion) to tell their non-traditional, non-linear stories with great visual flair.

The production values of Point Blank are all first-rate. The set designs - a psychedelic nightclub, a used car lot, a mobster's home in the desert - are notable. The unconventional use of film space - stylized compositions of concrete riverbeds, sweeping bridges, empty prison cells - recalls Antonioni's innovative frames of the same period. The color scheme of the movie - the chilly blues and grays of Acker's apartment, Dickinson's butter yellow bathrobe, the startling red wall in Vernon's penthouse - is fresh and provocative. Johnny Mandel's inspired score is both tense and, when appropriate, elegiac. The expert cinematography by Philip H. Lathrop, and editing by Henry Berman, are crisp and exact: from the deck of a tour boat Walker gazes out at San Francisco Bay and then in the next shot, in flashback, the wounded Marvin swims for his life in the same choppy sea. The acting, particularly Marvin as the tenacious pursuer, Dickinson as his reluctant accomplice, and Vernon as his prey, is faultless. And Boorman's direction could not be better. Every scene in the movie propels the narrative forward. Like Walker, Boorman is relentless, careful, and precise, and even today, thirty-six years after its initial showing, Point Blank remains a vibrant, and controversial, movie. Which is certainly more than can be said for its remake Payback, an inept and offensive picture that illustrates, once again, the folly of reconstructing a classic.

The trouble begins with the script, co-written by director Brian Helgeland who, in palmier days, won an Oscar for his screenplay of L.A. Confidential. In Point Blank Walker's dogged pursuit of his money leads him higher and higher up the Mob's treacherous chain of command. It's the streamlined, existential journey of a man determined to exact not so much revenge as (in his view) justice. But in Payback the filmmakers are not content to follow such an austere
narrative. Instead they choose to complicate (and so obscure) the original story by tossing into the mix a cartoonish Asian crime syndicate, a dominatrix (Lucy Liu in a thankless, embarrassing performance), and an unnecessary subplot involving two crooked cops. This is, of course, Hollywood's current version of high concept: cobble together a script, hire a bankable star (Mel Gibson), stir into the narrative stew a few racial clichés, a dash of sophomoric sex and enough gratuitous violence to satisfy the most jaded viewer and voila, you have a hit. Comparing Point Blank to Payback is like comparing an Olivier performance replayed, thirty years later, by Steven Seagal. No one who has seen the opening ten minutes of Point Blank will likely forget it: the ethereal light on Alcatraz, the staccato flashbacks taking place in Walker's mind when he is wounded, the bright fear on Vernon's face at the moment of betrayal. In Payback the central heist occurs in an anonymous alley and is, inexplicably, played for laughs. While the sexual tension in Point Blank between Marvin and Dickinson is palpable, Payback offers us Lucy Liu brandishing a slender black whip. And if Point Blank is a high watermark of visual style, Payback is a drought: there isn't a single moment in the movie that feels daring, or original, or bold. Point Blank is the cinematic statement of an artist whose passion for the language of film has resulted in at least two bona-fide masterworks (Deliverance, Hope and Glory), as well as such estimable offerings as Hell In The Pacific (1968), The Emerald Forest (1985), and The General (1998). Payback is a commodity, a product of a studio system that does not revere art - it reveres corporate profit.

And perhaps nothing more keenly illustrates the wide disparity in the two movies than the performances. In Point Blank even the minor roles - Keenan Wynn as the mysterious Yost, James Sikking as a hit man, Carroll O'Connor as a Mob boss - are memorable. Payback, meanwhile, manages to waste the considerable talents of such reliable old pros as James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, and David Paymer. (Only Maria Bello, as Gibson's girlfriend, rises above the fray.) And in the central role, the role that must carry the movie, the disparity widens. With his lean, chiseled features, and his no-nonsense approach, Lee Marvin embodies the anti-hero: he's a coiled fuse, a human tripwire, and yet there are moments of irony and tenderness (particularly in his scenes with Acker and Dickinson) also. It's a subtle, layered performance, and it holds the movie together. In contrast, Gibson seems lost in a role which, to be fair, is so poorly written perhaps no one else could have pulled it off either. Which begs the question why an actor of this stature would choose such a paltry role in the first place. Surely he is offered better scripts than this one. In Payback Gibson's like a sleepwalker - he calls it in - except on those numerous occasions when he is kept busy being
kicked, hammered, beaten or shot at. It isn't much of a performance, but the guy sure can take a punch. Some of the finest American movies (Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde) are excruciatingly violent. And yet the mayhem in those pictures is arguably necessary, for it illustrates just how ingrained violence is in certain aspects of American life. The violence in Payback, like its racist jokes, appeals to the lowest common denominator in all of us: it is meant simply to titillate, and thus is both deeply offensive and morally bereft. Still, if nothing else Payback proves that the mainstream audience gets what it asks for. While Point Blank flopped at the box-office, Payback paid back its investment by becoming, against all reason, a moderate hit.


                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002