I must admit that when I first read that the Coen Brothers were remaking the 1969 John Wayne western True Grit, I was less than thrilled. My main concern was that on the artistic ladder, remakes often fall somewhere between America's Funniest Home Videos and watching a dog eat its own crap. So when the Coen Brothers decided to dabble in remake territory, I felt a little bit let down. But I couldn't help but get at least a little excited when I saw this TV spot.
"I mean to kill ya!" That's just grizzled badassery right there. And that seems to pretty much be the theme of the movie. When Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires drunken Federal Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to find Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for killing her father, they cross paths with LaBeouf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who has been tracking Chaney for a murder he committed in the Lonestar State.
From this point on the movie turns into an extended pissing contest between Cogburn, LaBeouf, and even Ross. Both men believe they are the ones to catch Chaney for their own reasons, and Ross believes her need for revenge means that things should be handled according to her direction. So they're constantly bickering and posturing while trailing Chaney, and it makes for some entertaining dialog. More importantly, all three characters are forced to stop talking a good game and actually follow through in some great gunfights that crescendo in a four-on-one shootout between Cogburn and a gang of ne'er-do-wells.
In fact, of all the characters in the movie, the one who proves to be the least tough is the murderer they are after, Tom Chaney. I went into the movie thinking that Chaney was going to be a Lee Marvin-type killer, both cold and threatening. But Chaney wound up being closer to a scrawny version of Mongo from Blazing Saddles. He stupidly mopes his way through most of his ten minutes of screen time. Kind of a let down considering the build up.
Other than Brolin's impression of the Looney Tunes abominable snowman, True Grit is a worthy addition to the Coen Brothers' catalog. As always, the cinematography is dark yet beautiful, as Joel and Ethan get some great shots in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Texas. And even though the movie pulled off a PG-13 rating, there is still the blunt violence you come to expect from a self-respecting Coen Brothers' movie.
But again, the real reason you go to watch this movie is for some great performances, especially by Jeff Bridges. I haven't seen the original version, but I'm still going to go ahead and say that Bridges is a better Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne. Acting for John Wayne, after all, tends to involve little more than putting on a costume and then continuing to act like John Wayne. Overrated, I say! Jeff Bridges, meanwhile, is probably most famous for playing a shiftless hippie several decades after it was culturally acceptable to be a shiftless hippie. Yet even though he's just a shade under 60, I would not want to fuck with him as Rooster Cogburn. That's called "range," children.
So I must officially retract my stance on remakes as being automatically awful. When done right, they can add something to cinema canon. And the Coen Brothers did just that with True Grit. It's a fine western, and made for a good way to cap off 2010 at the movies.