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Grittier and Better 

Remake or not, only one question matters: Is it good?

click to enlarge Steinfield, Bridges, Damon, Brolin
  • Steinfield, Bridges, Damon, Brolin

The old question rears its head once again: Why do they have to go and remake a classic?

But, excuse me ... the 1969 True Grit, aside from earning John Wayne an Oscar, wasn’t exactly a classic. It was an enjoyable, workmanlike adaptation of a terrific novel by Charles Portis. But most folks who remember the film do so only for the iconic few seconds of Wayne, as Rooster Cogburn, riding hard with the reins in his teeth, a pistol in one hand and a rifle in the other, blazing away at some bad guys.

There was plenty of room for a remake, especially since the first film was sanitized a bit, cleaning up some of the book’s nasty unpleasantries, but mainly because the Coen brothers went on record saying they hated the first film and wanted to get their own shot at honoring the book.

In the late 1800s, little Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), a rather mature and feisty 14-year-old, has made a long trip to claim the body of her father. He was murdered by the wretched Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who has since escaped to the Indian Territories.

“I intend to see Papa’s killer hanged,” she announces, then proceeds to ask around town for the best lawman to help her. But she chooses Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) because he’s referred to as the meanest.

In the movies’ latest presentation of opposites attracting, this strongheaded, fast-talking little girl finds the scruffy, surly — no doubt smelly — Cogburn repulsive. And he, well he can’t make heads or tails out of her, unable, through yet another hangover, to believe what he’s seeing and hearing when she offers him good money to get her man.

There’s a major difference between the Cogburns of John Wayne and Jeff Bridges. Both of them are gruff men who have seen better days. But Wayne did the role with more of a twinkle in his one eye; Bridges plays him sloppier and messier. Wayne drawled; Bridges growls. Wayne covered his left eye; Bridges wears the leather patch on his right. Go figure!

The other main character, originally played in vanilla style by Glen Campbell, is La Boeuf (Matt Damon) a Texas Ranger who appears in town also looking for Chaney for different murderous reasons. Damon, too, remains kind of bland, but he’s far better than Campbell at working small bits of subtle humor into his line delivery and physical manner.

The Mattie-Cogburn-La Boeuf trio is, despite many disagreements, soon out on the road. La Boeuf has no patience for this little girl. Cogburn remains confounded by her spirit. She keeps giving plenty of sass to everyone around her, and may, in her fearless determination, be even grittier than the men.

While the heart of the story involves the changing attitudes toward Mattie by the two men traveling with her, the film is flat-out Coen-esque. It’s a Western adventure, riddled with funny moments and bursts of horrific violence — very much the way Portis originally presented it on paper, though now grandly visual. Longtime Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins manages to get perfect visuals in cramped, low-lit rooms while also capturing the magnificence of the wide-open plains.

The Coens have kept some direct patches of Portis’s stately old-fashioned dialogue: People say, “I do not know,” instead of “I don’t know.” But they’ve also taken a few liberties in the plotting while thankfully leaving the bittersweet ending — missing from the first film — intact.

So was it OK to remake the film? Absolutely. For viewers of a certain age, watching it will be like visiting with an old friend. For everyone else, it’s going to be a brand-new experience. Maybe they’ll even think it’s a classic.

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