After have viewing both of you in the last year – the remake just a few days ago – I am struck by the differences between the two of you. Some are subtle, while others are large. The remake is rendered by the legendary Cohen brothers and a laudable remake it is, even in the estimation of a well known remake hater such as myself. But as I said there are differences.
Let’s start with our venerable protagonist Rooster Cogburn. I will refer to the original as the The Duke and the later as Bridges. In the 1969 masterpiece, which I have seen on the big screen and on TVs of all shapes and sizes, the introduction to Rooster is via an instant impression of a larger than life character wrapped in this grizzled old Marshal. But all of the Duke’s characters were bigger than life. He plays this lawman as barely a notch above the fugitives he hunts, but it is an undeniably clear notch! With Bridges, however, with his snide and overly flippant attitude on the stand, shows he isn’t a likable reprobate at all. The Duke gives us a small pause to at least believe that he is or has been a redeemable lawman. Not so with Bridges. The later leaves a bad taste in the mouth that doesn’t readily dissipate! It’s a shame too, since a bulk of wonderful groundwork done initially to setup this great story is done by a new Mattie that far out ‘Mattie’s’ Kim Darbys original portrayal. Hailee Steinfeld does such a fine job that by the time we get to the hungover Bridges as Rooster it is a decided let down for me. He takes Rooster too far into ‘washed up has been land’ in my estimation and perhaps it is his plan to do so but it rankles a bit nonetheless.
As Mattie continues along her determined way as the bright light and heart of this movie, she soon meets the straight shooting LaBoeuf played very close to the knitting by Matt Damon. I like his flavor of the Texas Lawman just as much as I liked the original played by Glen Campbell. I like to think his grit is the second grit we meet, after Mattie of course. As we make our way up into the back country, Mattie shows herself to be tough on the trail while Bridges Rooster shows his ass mostly and he clashes with LaBoeuf in ways that leave a much stronger bad taste in my mouth than the Duke or Campbell ever did! As I say perhaps it is Bridges and Cohen brothers angling for their own stamp on the story, but I digress.
As the tale brings us to the hideout we see another part of where the remake shines. The Bad guys! Always in my perceptions of the original bad guys, there is an underlying feeling that they weren’t given the kind of depth and time to illicit a bad enough feeling about them. They were simply just the cookie cutter bad guys you find in a John Wayne movie though played by legends Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and the capable Jeff Corey.
In the remake however, they ooze ‘tough hombre’ and after Mattie’s chance encounter with the Josh Brolin’s version of Tom Chaney, he hauls her back to Ned Pepper even after she shoots him with her daddy’s gun. In perhaps one of the best movie making ironies of them all, we get to see Barry Pepper at some of his tough man best playing Ned Pepper, and it’s a sight to see, same names aside. Duvall was a Good Ned but a bit too subdued, while Pepper is a fiery Ned that brings some fresh intensity to this iconic bad guy! Even the two low level lackeys in the new one that hold down the hideout waiting for Ned are note worthy. It makes for a better second half to the film in many ways.
Of course the moment when Ned rides out and encounters Rooster in that iconic mountain meadow is where we finally start seeing some grit from Mr. Bridges’ Rooster, though it seems almost too late to redeem his portrayal. But when Bridges rose up in his saddle and told them to get ready and fill their hands full of iron, he finally comes real close to The Duke, even though he still doesn’t quite send the same chills down my spine as when John Wayne barks it, but it was good nonetheless.
Perhaps, in hindsight, Bridges played it the way he did to make Rooster’s redemption a little sweeter in the end. When he rode with the snake bit Mattie until blackie dropped and he marched until he dropped with in sight of the outpost, all to save her life it somehow subtly overshadowed the end of the original to me, and that is testament indeed! The mighty Duke made the first one into the legend it is, with some good supporting work by cast-mates, where Bridges on the other hand was set amongst stellar efforts and in many cases onscreen benchmarks for this story. Obviously there is no disrespect intended for anyone in the original, and say what you will, I slightly prefer it over the remake only because of The Duke. Oh my, just the thought of seeing him stretch his Rooster character with the remake cast would be something akin to contemplating Western Movie Nirvana!
Sir Duke, you hold my esteem always and forever, but in this case I HAVE to take my hat off to this remake cast and crew, if for no other reason than to honor the balls they all had in bringing their best game to this film while attempting to fill such huge shoes and making no excuses in doing so. And to you, Jeff Bridges, I have to sweep my hat away and bow to your honor, because as Bon Scott and Angus Young so adeptly phrased, “You, Have, the Biggest Balls of Them All.” Your attempt adds legacy to your career and rightfully wasn’t overlooked either with an Oscar nod that was the least the academy could do. I like to think that somewhere John Wayne smiled a little, nodded in appreciation at your efforts and I can hear him say “you did a good job pardner,” and indeed you did.
Until we meet on the trail again, I send my undying appreciation to you both!