By Paul Ciampanelli
Everyone knows there’s nothing new under the sun, especially when it comes to Hollywood. It can seem like nine out of 10 movies released these days are sequels, prequels, spin-offs, reboots or remakes. And that one movie out of 10 that seems fresh? Well, there’s a good chance that one’s not so original either. Sometimes a movie steals the plot of a previous film a little too closely for coincidence, but audiences might not catch on. “Rip-off” is a bit strong of a term — every great artist steals from other artists — so that’s why we prefer the term “stealth remake.”
“Lockout” is “Escape From New York”
One of the latest examples of a stealth remake is the Luc Besson-penned “Lockout” from earlier this year. Though it swaps in a space vessel instead of the entire Big Apple to serve as an impenetrable prison, the plot of “Lockout” is startlingly similar to the 1981 cult classic “Escape From New York.” Guy Pearce plays the Snake Plissken analog "Snow," a government-agent-turned-convict who must infiltrate the dangerous prison to rescue the president’s daughter (In “Escape From New York,” it’s the president himself!) and a cache of secret government info (a cassette tape in “Escape”). As terrific as Guy Pearce is, though, “Lockout” can’t match the charm of its predecessor’s entire cast, which awesomely includes Kurt Russell, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau. And a space prison simply isn’t as rad as the premise that, in the future, all of New York City is a giant maximum security prison.
“Barb Wire” is “Casablanca”
When Pamela Anderson Lee made her big-screen starring debut in 1996’s comic-book adaptation “Barb Wire,” it was a huge deal to 13-year-old boys and almost no one else. The movie generally stuck to the particulars of the comic — Barbara “Barb Wire” Kopetski is a club owner/bounty hunter living in a near-future dystopian city named Steel Harbor — but it mostly left alone the nine-issue series’ plot elements. Instead, it essentially lifted its plot note for note from a slightly more well-known film: “Casablanca.” All the elements are there: the fascist dictatorship, a group of underground freedom fighters whose leader is the current paramour of the disillusioned protagonist’s former lover, and the pursuit of a MacGuffin that will allow the freedom fighters safe passage out of the city. There’s even a powerful underworld boss named Big Fatso, which seems like an awfully disrespectful way to pay homage to the legendary Sydney Greenstreet. In the end, few took to the sci-fi-and-tits version of Michael Curtiz’s classic. Critics panned it, audiences stayed away in droves, and the flick was awarded several Razzie nominations and one MTV Movie Award nomination (which is pretty much the same thing as a Razzie).
“The Fast and the Furious” is “Point Break” is “No Man’s Land”
Superfans of Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 cult classic “Point Break” are often heard to sneer that “The Fast and the Furious” is a shameless rip-off of their favorite action surf movie. It’s difficult to deny that the movies share notably similar plots. “Point Break” is about a young FBI agent who goes undercover and joins a group of LA surfers/adrenaline junkies in order to capture a gang of masked bank robbers. “The Fast and the Furious” is about a young cop who goes undercover and joins a group of LA street racers as part of a joint LAPD/FBI plan to capture a gang of hijackers. So therefore “Point Break” is a stone-cold original and “The Fast and the Furious” is a copycat, right? Maybe not. Both movies perhaps owe a debt to an even earlier film: “No Man’s Land” stars Charlie Sheen as a young cop who goes undercover and joins a group of L.A. Porsche enthusiasts/mechanics in order to capture a gang of Porsche thieves. But there’s no sense quibbling over who stole from whom. All three flicks are dope. Why choose?
“Cars” is “Doc Hollywood”
The plot to Pixar’s least loved but most merchandise-exploitable film is not as original as its young fans may think. It shares more than enough of its story with the 1991 Michael J. Fox comedy “Doc Hollywood” to raise a few eyebrows. In both, the protagonist is an arrogant, conceited, big city hotshot who causes a car accident in a small town (Fox’s Dr. Benjamin Stone drives the car; Lightning McQueen is the car) en route to Los Angeles. A judge sentences the hero to stick around and perform service as restitution for the damage done to the town. Both Ben Stone and Lighting McQueen initially resist small town life, but gradually grow to love it. Actually, both films are surprisingly good and worth a watch, but if you have to choose just one for some reason, keep in mind that not only is “Cars” the movie doing the ripping off here, it’s also the one that doesn’t feature a topless Julie Warner emerging from a lake. We think the choice is clear.
“The Big Lebowski” is “The Big Sleep”
When “The Big Lebowski” debuted in 1996, it was met with somewhat mixed critical reviews and was only a modest success with the moviegoing public before finding an ever-growing and dedicated cult fan base in the years since its release. But even its most ardent supporters can acknowledge that it’s not hard to understand why the Dude didn’t immediately strike a chord with mainstream audiences. “The Big Lebowski” is based on Raymond Chandler’s novel, “The Big Sleep,” the Bogey-and-Bacall noir adaptation of which is famously one of the most confounding movies ever made. In it, a tycoon hires a private detective to investigate the rich man’s daughter’s deep gambling debts, and a multi-layered mystery with seemingly endless twists, turns and loops unravels. The Dude’s adventures mirror the Byzantine plot of “The Big Sleep,” in which it’s almost never clear who’s lying and who’s telling the truth, who’s alive or dead, and seemingly every other character is taking the hero for a ride. Film noir might have been out of vogue by the time “Lebowski” hit screens, but couple it with Joel and Ethan Coen’s signature offbeat sensibilities, and you wind up with not only one of the genre’s best homages, but also one of the 1990s’ most distinctive films.
“American Psycho” is “Vampire’s Kiss”
“American Psycho” is the controversial 2000 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ even more controversial 1991 novel of the same name. Both works tell the satirical horror story of Patrick Bateman, a young, rich, yuppie executive whose ultra-privileged but hollow lifestyle of expensive clubs, expensive restaurants and one-night stands makes him more and more mentally unstable, and drives him to terrible acts of serial murder. (Whether Bateman is actually a murdering monster or if his crimes exist only in his tortured mind is left up to the audience’s imagination.) But even Ellis’ original novel came after a cult film with a unmissibly similar plot. 1988’s “Vampire’s Kiss” feature Nicolas Cage at his hammiest, cockroach-eatingest best. Like Bateman, Cage’s Peter Loew is a wealthy New York yuppie whose hedonistic nights slowly drive him insane. Except instead of emerging as a serial killer, Loew becomes — or believes himself to become — a vampire. Bateman and Loew both spiral out of control, their madness intensifying, their crimes growing increasingly horrific. Both yuppies even prey on their innocent secretaries. And both are shrouded in a confusing miasma of reality and terrifying hallucination.
“A Fistful of Dollars” is “Yojimbo” is “Red Harvest”
Sergio Leone’s “A Fistul of Dollars” — the first in a trilogy of Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns that also included “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” — is an unofficial, westernized remake of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai flick, “Yojimbo.” In both, an unnamed, lone wolf stranger wanders into a town where competing criminal bosses vie for power. The stranger works for both sides, pitting them against each other. Kurosawa believed that Leone had ripped off his work, claiming that “Fistful’ was “my movie,” and there was a lawsuit. But the legendary director shouldn’t have been so precious about his work, since “Yojimbo” wasn’t entirely original to begin with. The basic plot owes a huge debt to Dashiell Hammett’s classic crime novel, “Red Harvest.” Interestingly, though the 1929 novel predates either movie, its has the more modern setting of the three, but it still concerns the story of an outsider who pits against each other criminal factions warring for control of a city. Other than just the plot of “Yojimbo,” Kurosawa also took quite a few cinematic cues from other sources, particularly the westerns of John Ford and George Stevens. So ultimately, Kurosawa felt ripped off by a movie that was only retaking a story sourced from a few distinctly American works in the first place.
“Blow Out” is “Blow-Up” + “The Conversation”
Brian De Palma’s underrated and underseen 1981 masterpiece “Blow Out” has more than just its title, serving as an homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘60s classic, “Blow-Up.” Antonioni’s film is about a fashion photographer who takes pictures in a park that appear to accidentally capture the images of a murder taking place. Keeping the kernel of this plot, De Palma’s movie changes the protagonist’s profession from a fashion photographer to a movie sound designer who, while capturing sound effects in a park, accidentally records audio of a possible political assassination attempt. The thriller’s plot also parallels much of 1974’s “The Conversation,” about an audio surveillance expert who secretly records the conversation of a couple talking about someone possibly planning to kill them. ”Blow Out” and “The Conversation” share similarly unraveling mysteries and rather bleak endings. Interestingly, director Francis Ford Coppolla has acknowledged that one of his inspirations for “The Conversation” was — you guessed it — Antonioni’s “Blow-Up.”
“Cobra” is “Beverly Hills Cop” in another universe
“Cobra” isn’t technically a remake of “Beverly Hills Cop,” but it is the movie that “Beverly Hills Cop” at one point was very, very close to being. Many people may be surprised to learn that “Beverly Hills Cop,” one of the most popular comedies of all time, didn’t start life as a comedy at all. It was supposed to be a straight-up action flick. But Hollywood moviemaking is rarely a simple process, and years of rewriting and recasting made the finished product something quite different from what was originally conceived. The screenplay didn’t become a comedy until Eddie Murphy was cast, and once he was in, the role of Axel Foley was completely rewritten with him in mind. But before Murphy became the movie’s lead, Sylvester Stallone was attached to the project, and he took a crack at writing his own version of the screenplay. Mere weeks before production began, however, Stallone bounced. He took his version of the screenplay with him and made it into “Cobra” a couple of years later. Not a smart move for Sly. “Beverly Hills Cop” was a monster hit that earned boatloads of cash and made Eddie Murphy the biggest movie star in America at the time. “Cobra” was a Razzie award-nominated piece of crap that contributed to a deep career slump for Stallone.
Next: 10 Absurd First Movies of Famous Actors
“Disturbia” is “Rear Window”
If you’re going to shamelessly steal a classic movie, a good strategy is to aim your knockoff at a teen audience. That way, you can use the tried-and-true premises and plots of movies that have been beloved for generations, and repackage them for a generation that may not yet be familiar with the original stuff. 2007’s “Disturbia” recycled the plot of the 53-year-old “Rear Window,” one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular films, and placed Shia LeBeouf in the Jimmy Stewart role, just when LeBeouf was emerging as the hottest teen star in Hollywood. As in “Rear Window,” the hero of “Disturbia” is stuck indoors (Stewart’s character had a broken leg, while LeBeouf’s is under house arrest), and spends his time spying on the neighborhood goings-on through his binoculars, which leads him to become a witness to possible murder. If you doubt that “Disturbia” is a rip-off, note that it was actually written and optioned 20 years ago, but the studio shelved the project because a direct “Rear Window” remake went into production. Once that passed from the minds of audiences, the “Disturbia” script was resurrected.