Unforgiven, Samurai-style, but with guns...
Whilst there’s an innate and wholly justified mistrust levelled at remakes in general, over the years – and even more recently – there have been exceptions to the rule. This can likely be regarded as one of them.Not only does it play with the advantage of setting the story within a new environment – Westerns often make for interesting Sci-fi vehicles (look at Outland’s take on High Noon or even Avatar’s loose retelling of Dances with Wolves) – but it also follows a fairly natural reverse-engineered trajectory in taking an immensely popular Western masterpiece, Clint Eastwood’s final statement on the genre, 1992’s Unforgiven, and reworking it to fit a dying Samurai era. It’s an undoubtedly natural transition, mainly because so many films have been adapted successfully in the other direction – from Fistful of Dollars’ variation on Yojimbo to The Magnificent Seven’s retelling of Seven Samurai - so it almost feels akin to Johnny Cash’s reworking of Nine Inch Nails’ seminal song, Hurt.As with that musical reinterpretation, you feel like the remake could have easily come first. Unfortunately, what works in theory, does not come through with perfect execution, with director Lee Sang-il staying just that little bit too faithful to the source material. He not only follows the same footsteps as the far more skilled Eastwood, but even replicates whole scenes and lines of dialogue. Indeed, it is a strange constraint that the filmmakers set themselves, because the alternate setting – the post-Shogunate era in Japan, as Samurai were outlawed and guns were becoming more prolific – could have afforded a more interesting tale which followed the same basic structure, but was not restricted to the exact same scenes and same order of events.
Those who loved Eastwood’s Unforgiven, but haven’t seen it in a while, may find this remake an interesting attempt at doing something the same, differently. It does work, for the most part, and is helped no end by a strong cast led by Ken Watanabe who brings us his best take on Eastwood’s William Munny, right down to wearing similar attire, finding it hard to get back on a horse, catching a cold, struggling to avoid alcohol, and trying his best to resist returning to his previous violent life. This version is much more explicit in its examination of the character’s violent roots, and dwells on the bloody finale too, in an excellent confrontation, but still suffers from retreading familiar ground at a slower pace, and failing to take the obvious directions towards innovation that the changes in setting could have easily afforded it.
An overly faithful adherence to the original script restricts the filmmakers from taking the rather obvious paths towards welcome difference.
The film would have benefited considerably from taking a closer look at the juxtaposition of swords and guns in this particular era, with a far greater emphasis on the former, particularly given the protagonist’s status as an ex-samurai. Eastwood’s memorable moment, for example, when he pulls the trigger on Hackman’s nemesis only to click empty, could have been easily refashioned with a samurai sword that got stuck in a hilt, rather than just replayed with a gun; and similar moments throughout would have struck a more original chord had they stayed true to their samurai retcon intentions, rather than played out the gun-toting aspects with such aching familiarity.
Whilst still a good and worthy watch, this still feels like something of a missed opportunity, a far better idea on paper, which the filmmakers did not fully commit to. They were too busy staying faithful to the original to strive for originality themselves.
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