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Category:    Home > Reviews > Action > Heist > Italian Job (1969 & 2003/Paramount DVDs)

The Italian Job – 1969 and 2003 Widescreen Editions


Picture: B-/B     Sound: B-/B+     Extras: B-/C+     Films: B-/C+



To remake or not remake, that is the question.  When Mark Wahlberg has been asked that very question recently, let’s just say he never met a remake project he did not want to sign up for.  This has already led to two of the biggest disasters in cinema history.  First, the actor (one of the few who care stars and can really act) sadly trusted Tim Burton in his massacre of Planet of the Apes in 2001.  Then, he showed up again in Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie the following year.  This time, the film being disemboweled was Stanley Donen’s 1963 classic Charade, and Demme actually (in an act that still stuns viewers worldwide) managed to actually surpass Burton in desecrating a film that should have been left alone!


With yet another year came yet another remake.  This time, the director attached would be Music Video director F. Gary Gray (whose Vin Diesel disaster A Man Apart was issued in 2003 after being on the shelf for a long while and promptly died out), who had shown promise with the mixed-but-interesting The Negotiator (1998).  The film would be the 1969 Peter Collinson cult classic The Italian Job from 1969.  Troy Kennedy Martin’s original script was trashed and a new screenplay by Donna and Wayne Powers was penned.  This avoided a total gutting-out of the original, to their credit, but was still so predictable and formulaic that it was slight.  However, thanks to Wahlberg, and co-stars Charleze Theron (whose early remake appearance in the awful 1998 version of Mighty Joe Young could technically qualify as domestic terrorism against children viewers and brain damage for all), Edward Norton, Seth Green, a nice turn by Rapper Mos Def, Jason Stratham, Franky G, and the great Donald Sutherland (whose Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake in 1978 by Philip Kaufmann is one of the best remakes to date), along with an additional castoff unknowns who should become more known, saved this film from disaster.


As with the original, this is essentially about an extremely bold gold heist.  The original has Michael Caine leading Benny Hill, Tony Beckley, and a cast of very entertaining unknowns, all while still being memorable.  They have to contend with competition from Italy’s Mafia (dressed in almost bad, stereotypical pre-Godfather outfits and led by Raf Valone), but their in-prison criminal mastermind connection (Noel Coward) has his own ideas.  That set up is broad and works terrifically.  By comparison, the remake relegates the organized crime force to an incidental East Block crime unit, the heist team is cut down considerably to less-naturalistic semi-characatures the actors manage to overcome, and technology fills in as the star in the many time the script fails and the actors are not left with as much to do.  Of course, the Mini Cooper is prominently featured in both films, but they are more colorful in the original, and more fun.  Here, they are upgraded workhorses going through the motions.  The original had an extensive car chase with a great sense of humor and grand sense of freewheeling no action film has today.  The Mini even is shown to better effect in the Austin Powers franchise, as the remake could have used any car.  It even feels as flat as an ad placement.


So box-office wise for Wahlberg, the third time was the charm, but certainly NOT artistically.  Paramount just got lucky that films like Charlie’s Angels – Full Throttle and the misguided The Hulk helped to make 2003 ghastly, so they had a film people wanted to see because “some people” looked like they might be there somewhere.  Though still not that good, it was not the artistic/commercial disaster his previous remakes had been (Burton’s Apes was so overly expensive, that like The Hulk, the numbers actually larger than this Italian remake are very deceptive), people actually paid money to see this one, so they are (yawn!) already talking sequel.  Some people just do not know when they just got lucky, and learn to leave it at that.


Technically on the DVDs, both have 2.35 X 1 images that are anamorphically enhanced, but with a big difference.  The original is in actual Panavision, with color processed by Humphreys that looks really good, though the transfer still has its softness.  The color will impress nevertheless, thanks in part to the cinematography of Douglas Slocombe, B.S.C., who later shot (also all in real Panavision) the James Bond film Never say Never Again (one of the best features of the 1983 remake of 1965’s Thunderball) and the entire Indiana Jones trilogy.  By comparison, the remake is shot in cheaper and less-defined Super 35 for scope, and is also much more color poor.  Wally Pfister, A.S.C., is one of the best cameramen working today, having shot Memento (2000) and another remake that fared much better, Insomnia, both directed by Christopher Nolan.


Why the film has these limits visually is odd, but a rumored series of production troubles plagued the film, even though it was a moderate hit.  The image is a bit sharper by default simply based on the newer stocks used, but it is very slight in comparison to the older version.  I managed to see the remake twice in work prints, some footage of which had the usual dirt and artifacts.  In a concluding shot on the final print here shot in Venice, you can still see the both!  Some of the mate work and the like also are not top rate, but this kind of thing happens when you are trying to throw together a big commercial formula film and often does.


Both also feature Dolby Digital 5.1 AC-3 multi-channel mixes.  The original was monophonic theatrically, but the remix here is not bad.  The biggest stereo element is Quincy Jones unusual score for the film, which is joined by some subwoofer/.1/LFE that is not badly placed.  The film recently had a theatrical reissue in Britain, as the reissue trailer shows, so it is no wonder it was done correctly.  The 5.1 on the newer film is the best feature on either DVD, with a smart, dynamic mix that makes sense and likely accounts for its commercial viability as much as the cast.  This is one of the relatively nicer Dolby Digital mixes to date, but the curiosity of how good this would sound in DTS (or even SDDS) will always remain.  I bet they could outdo what is here, as good as it is.


There are also many extras on both DVDs.  The ones for 1969 include the original and reissue trailer, a good commentary by the great producer Michael Deeley and author Mathew Field (he wrote a book on the story of the original film), a very interesting deleted scene that even has optional commentary, and an outstanding, long documentary in three parts that is feature-film length.  It is the kind of making-of we do not see enough on DVD and digs deeply into all the elements of the cult classic.  The 2003 extras include 5 featurettes, 6 deleted scenes, and the original theatrical trailer.  Unlike the 1969 DVD, the focus of the documentary work here is on all the technology, the computers, the digital work, the special effects, and the cars.  The elements that count also get some attention, but the focus here reflects the limits of the remake itself.  They even tend to run on too much and be too self-impressed. That pretty much sums up all the problems with big-budget films, especially Action and (pseudo-) Science Fiction productions today!


The best way to see what is going on here is to get both DVDs and compare, a rare occasion for all the films that do get remade and issued in the format.  This is at least a curio evening of viewing, but the 1969 film continues to have the edge, even if it is an acquired taste.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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