LOS ANGELES, May 29 (UPI) -- With costs soaring, Hollywood has been trying to reduce risk by recycling successful old movies. Thus, the spate of sequels like "The Matrix Reloaded" and remakes like this week's "The Italian Job."
The dismal (and deserved) box office collapse of "Reloaded" in its second weekend (down 59 percent from its giga-hyped opening weekend), points out the artistic flaw in this strategy: regression toward the mean.
Only hit movies like "The Matrix" are sequelized or remade. But the main reason the originals were so good was not because of their foolproof concepts or impeccable talent, but because all the planets happened to come into perfect alignment during production and promotion. Lightning seldom strikes twice, however, so sequels and remakes are almost always worse than the originals.
Still, that doesn't fully explain the slump Hollywood has been in all of 2003. Even basic entertainment competence has been in short supply. I haven't had this much fun since finishing chemotherapy.
So, my hopes were not high for the new heist thriller-comedy "The Italian Job." It's essentially a giant product placement ad for the new BMW-engineered revival of the Mini Coopers that Michael Caine's gang used in the 1969 movie to spirit their hijacked gold out of Turin.
The original movie has almost been forgotten in America, but, with its hyper-English supporting cast of Noel Coward and Benny Hill (a brain-boggling combination), it retains a grip on the hearts of middle-aged Englishmen. It summons back England's cheeky 1960s, that brief summer of blokes in mod suits and birds in miniskirts (satirized in "Austin Powers") between its austere 1950s and its pear-shaped 1970s. English TV networks play "The Italian Job" before major international soccer matches to remind the English of when they last won the World Cup 37 years ago.
You can understand a little of the resentment that America's domination of global popular cultural engenders when you try to imagine how the 1969 film's English cultists felt when they learned that Paramount was ponying up about $75 million (a routine budget for Hollywood but a staggering sum for any other nation's film industry) to remake this national icon. And, all that money just to redo it in Los Angeles, with all new dialogue and plot, and with the blandly all-American Mark Wahlberg taking the Cockney Caine's role!
For inexplicable reasons, Wahlberg has recently become the go-to guy to remake parts originated by screen legends. He has also recently redone Charlton Heston's role in "Planet of the Apes" and Cary Grant's in "Charade" (renamed "The Truth about Charlie"). Perhaps Wahlberg will next star in new versions of "Modern Times," "Citizen Kane," and "The King and I?"
And why do they always cast Wahlberg as a smart guy -- an astronaut, a CIA spy, or the master planner in this film? He has a talent for playing likable dumbos, so why not let him play to his strength?
And why move "The Italian Job" from Turin to LA (which, last time I checked, is not Italian)? Look, I love LA. I was born here. But even I'm sick of seeing it on screen. How many more times do we need to see car chases down the concrete-lined LA River?
Two-time Oscar nominee Edward Norton plays the double-crossing villain, but all he did to prepare for the part was to grow a low rent mustache, making himself look like a sleazy chipmunk.
So, the new movie stinks, right?
Wrong. Everyone's horoscope must have been in sync, because under F. Gary Gray's faultless direction, it's 104 consecutive minutes of nimble entertainment. It's perhaps the most enjoyable movie of the year, with a power to weight ratio resembling the supercharged Mini Cooper S cars that steal the show.
The screening audience, especially the women, loved the Minis. My wife whispered to me, "These are the first car chases that I've ever cared about."
The scene of lovely Charlize Theron zipping her Mini through lumbering traffic to nose into a 13' long parking space is going to inspire lots of sorority girls to beg their daddies for these adorable baby station wagons. Of course, other sorority girls whose daddies bought them Hummers will squash them like cockroaches, but at least the Mini girls will look cute up until the moment they become road kill.
Rated a mild PG-13 for violence and some language.