"When faced with a problem you do not understand,
do any part of it you do understand; then look at it again."
~(Robert A. Heinlein - "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Possibly a good movie ...

... or not.  A Tale of Two Books  --  from print to film.
(18 Sep 2011 - Updated at the very end)
(25 Sep 2011 - Final Update  - The bottom line - at the bottom of the post)

When exiting the auditorium of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"  (yes, I am a fan; especially of the books, although the movies  have been a mixed lot), I spied the following poster on the wall ...

"Oh, Great! ...", I thought, ".... another damned remake."

Sam Peckinpah (probably best known for "The Wild Bunch") made The Killer Elite in 1975, about a group of mercenaries working for the CIA, in which one of them gets shot up and crippled in a double-cross from one of the others.  It was mostly about the revenge of that guy and was not among Peckinpah's best by a long shot; redeemed only by the presence of James Caan, Arthur Hill and Robert Duvall.

The poster above shows Jason Statham (good), Robert De Niro (promising, although he's made some weird  choices lately) and Clive Owen (whom I've liked ever since "The Bourne Identity" and "Sin City").

So far, so good.  But, what's this "Based on a true story"  business below their names?  That doesn't square with it being a remake.

Oh!  It turns out that this is not a remake of Peckinpah's film after all.  Buried in the fine print is "Based on "The Feather Men" by Sir Ranulph Fiennes".

WHOA!!!  Now, it's really starting to look interesting.  I have that book ...

Right there, on the back, you can read why I'm intrigued.

What made me pick up the book in the first place was the name "Fiennes" at the bottom of the cover, wondering if he was related to Ralph ("Rafe", as the Welsh pronounce it -- or so I've been told) Fiennes, whom I first saw as the camp commandant in "Schindler's List", and has lately been Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies.

It turns out that Sir Ranulph (God only knows how that  is pronounced;  "Ran" said to go with the "obvious" pronunciation) is a second cousin, a Polar explorer and mountain climber, and a lot of other things.

From the Trivia section on his Internet Movie DataBase (IMDB) page ...

Born posthumously 7 March 1944.  His father had been Colonel of Royal Scots Greys Regiment.   Fiennes joined the same regiment, and after blowing up the Doctor Dolittle (1967) film set as a prank, left for two more years in the Omani Army. (You might want to keep the "prank"  part in mind on his advice as to how to pronounce his name. :-)

He was in the running to be the next James Bond after Sean Connery. He was in the last six and had a meeting with Mr Broccoli 
(Albert "Cubby" Broccoli owned the film rights and was the producer) but unfortunately Cubby said his hands were too big and he had a face like a farmer!

He suffered a heart attack, Britain's biggest killer, on June 7 2003. Shortly after recovering, he ran seven marathons in seven days on six continents.

   26th October: Patagonia, S. America
   27th October: Falkland Islands
   28th October: Sydney, Australia 
   29th October: Singapore, Asia 
   31st October: London, Europe 
   31st October: Cairo, Africa 
   2nd November: New York, North America

That picture above is from this  article: Fiennes relishes marathon feat.  The article actually says seven continents, but they must have attached the Falklands to Antarctica to pull that off.

Climbed Mount Everest on the 21 May 2009 after his third attempt.
The damned kid is two years younger than I am, so I'm not jealous of him climbing that mountain while I sometimes have difficulty even walking out to the car.  I'm not.  I'M REALLY NOT!!! :(

In short, one Hell of an interesting guy, and worthy of a movie just about him.

A damned fine writer as well; he writes a gripping tale of the events in the book that's supposedly the basis for this movie.

So, why the "... or not." in the first line of my post?

From a synopsis on the IMDB (Internet Movie DataBase) ...
When his mentor (Robert De Niro) is taken captive, a retired member of Britain's Elite Special Air Service (Jason Statham) is forced into action. His mission: kill three assassins dispatched by their cunning leader (Clive Owen).

... which makes me feel that somebody went and paid good money for the rights to a book, chose not to use its title, and then jettisoned most of the story.  Wouldn't be the first time by a long shot, and I've ceased to wonder what goes on in the minds of people who make those kind of decisions.

Because of the three leads, I'll almost certainly check it out, but at present, my feelings are frankly a mixture of anticipation and dread.

You see, this ain't the first time I've been down this particular road.

Around the end of 2001,  I came across a poster for this  ...

Somewhere in the fine print (of the original poster in the theater) is
   "Based on "Taming The Nueces Strip" by George Durham"

Do I also have that book?  What a silly question. ...

A long time ago, when I lived in Michigan, I came across a copy at one of my favorite used-book stores, The Curious Book Shop in East Lansing (they are still in business; I just looked).

This book is still in print, from the University of Texas Press, and of course from Amazon.com (if they don't have something, it probably doesn't even exist).

It is primarily the story of a Georgia farm boy's experience of serving with the Texas Rangers during the period of 1875 and 1876, under the command of Captain Leander H. McNelly, in an outlaw-infested region known as the Nueces Strip.

When Texas was the Mexican state of Tejas, it was separated from Coahuila by the Nueces River, which ran down to the Gulf of Mexico at Corpus Christi.

After Texas won its Independence in 1836, it claimed land down to the Rio Grande River, establishing its border there.  That claim was upheld by the United States when Texas allowed itself to be annexed to the U.S. in 1845, but Mexico repudiated that claim and tried to treat that part of the state as its own, resulting in the Mexican-American War.

The area between the two rivers (the Nueces Strip) became a magnet for local desperadoes, and for cattle thieves from Mexico trying to liberate what they referred to as "Grandma's cattle".

It didn't help things much that the aftermath of the Civil War left most of the Southern states (including Texas) in an unholy, anarchistic mess.  To deal with that, in 1875 newly elected Governor Richard Coke created a special force within the Rangers, to be commanded by McNelly, and tasked with cleaning up the Nueces Strip.

He had some imaginative (but direct) approaches to the problem, as illustrated after a Mexican bandit gang had made a raid on a store in Nuecestown, a bit northwest of Corpus Christi.  Among the things they took were ...

eighteen brand-new Dick Heye saddles, which were what you'd now call the Cadillacs of the saddle world. They were heavily studded with silver conchos in a pattern that you could tell half a mile away, a fact that proved to be the death warrant for many a man.

McNelly was very interested in those saddles.  Upon learning from the store owner that he had some more on order, but they weren't in yet, he studied a moment, and then told him:

"When they come, don't sell a one until I tell you differently."  He turned to Sergeant Armstrong and ordered, "Describe those saddles to the Rangers.  Make sure they understand exactly.  Then order them to empty those saddles on sight!  No palavering with the riders.  Empty them!  Leave the men where you drop them, and bring the saddles to camp."

Among other things on his plate was also dealing with anglo outlaws;  in particular one John "King" Fisher, a friend of John Wesley Hardin and a guy who casually wandered back and forth on both sides of the law, and may have even been responsible for one of the earliest road signs in Texas -- where a road split into two directions,  on one a sign nailed to a tree warned,
   "This is King Fisher's road.
    Take the other."

He was a cattle rancher and also (sometimes) a cattle rustler as well.  Certainly an outlaw by definition, but sometimes also The Law (serving as a sheriff several times), meeting his end by being gunned down, along with his friend Ben Thompson (yet another "been there and done that" as both outlaw and law officer, born in England; his family emigrating to Austin, Texas when he was a kid) in an ambush at the Vaudeville Theatre in San Antonio, Texas in 1884.

A very multi-layered man, he was reduced in the movie to a ruthless killer and nothing more, going out in a blaze of gunfire from the Rangers.  Not a bit of subtlety left and not even Alfred Molina could do anything with the role to make it interesting (and that's saying something, given that Molina is an amazingly good actor;  you'd just never know it from this example).

I truly believe that there is one Hell of a fine movie waiting to be made from this book, but "Texas Rangers" just ain't it. The only things the book and movie have in common are a few names, and that's it.

Look for the book, and don't waste even a dollar on renting the movie.

Whether "Killer Elite" gets as badly mangled remains to be seen, but you should understand now if I'm leery of getting my hopes up too much.

Update - 18 Sep 2011 - When I'm intrigued by a movie, I do my level best to avoid reviews of it before I see it. I accidentally came across a blurb about "Killer Elite" saying that Robert De Niro's performance is much like what he did in "Ronin", Statham is, well, Statham; a force of nature, and that Clive Owen is in full "Sin City" mode here.

Ok! That last part settles it; I am definitely going to give it a look.

Final Update - 25 Sep 2011 - That IMDB synopsis I quoted, way up above, is very misleading, as are some of the trailers for this movie.

While technically accurate, because of cutting, you aren't seeing what you think you are seeing in those trailers.  I recognized quite a bit from the original story, but they made some major spins to certain events and characters (big surprise there, right?).

Biggest surprise to me (as a purist who usually hates changes from book to movie) was how much I liked the result;  probably because of absolutely first-rate work by Statham, De Niro and Owen.

Bottom line:  Amazingly Good!


Foxfier said...

It's bad enough when a good book gets turned into a totally different but enjoyable movie.

Really sucks when a really good book gets turned into a bad movie!

Paul Gordon said...

You're telling me.

And, a lifetime of this experience doesn't make it any easier to take.

I wrote in my post "There is a REASON why ..."

The business of bringing a movie to life is such a combination of art (hopefully), decision by committee, pure dumb luck and often mind-boggling stupidity (Pauline Kael once described movies as "an art form, run by businessmen") that Lewis Carroll would be hard put to render it justice.

Harlan Ellison has managed it on occasion, in some of his essays, and the process ain't pretty. In truth, the fact that sometimes, something really good actually emerges from all this is a true miracle.

I reckon I can stand with that.

gcotharn said...

Paul, you are full of surprises! Fun blogpost.

Paul Gordon said...

In my comment above, I refer to my post "There is a REASON why ...".

That post has been updated and renamed Apollo 18 -- The Verdict, in case you're curious.


P.M.Lawrence said...

The Curious Book Shop? Um... In the book trade, the Latin word Curiosa literally translates as "curious things", i.e. books in this context, but it is used metaphorically to refer to obscene and borderline obscene books, cartoons, pamphlets etc.


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