Saturday, December 25, 2010

'True Grit' II: Better Than the Original

You'll want the comparison between the two "True Grit" movies, so here goes.

The Coen Brothers' new version is better in nearly every sense.

In the 1969 Henry Hathaway original, 61-year-old John Wayne (recently off surgery to remove a lung because he smoked like a locomotive) was a clean-shaven Rooster Cogburn, his eyepatch over his left eye (an homage to director John Ford, his friend). Most important, though, is that Wayne, who won an Oscar for the role, played himself. The Academy Award was generally considered a career Oscar, one many thought overdue. Wayne was better in both "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and his last movie, "The Shootist." (Wayne was nominated in 1949 for "Sands of Iwo Jima" in a year when Broderick Crawford won for "All the King's Men.")

Bridges, who recently won his first Oscar for "Crazy Heart," is also 61, but looks older, more grizzled (eyepatch over the right eye) and far more cussed and ornery than even Wayne, as Rooster Cogburn--and not as Jeff Bridges. He's so nasty as the aging lawman with a mean streak the width of the Rio Grande that you can just about smell him. When he screams, "Fill your hand you sonofabitch," you have to believe he means it.

Hailee Steinfeld, as Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old who hires Rooster to pursue the bad man who killed her father, is every bit the equal of Kim Darby in the original. Both are quite good.

Matt Damon as full-of-himself Texas Ranger LaBoeuf is solid in the new version. Glen Campbell was an embarrassment in the 1969 role, during the height of his popularity ... as a singer. Campbell was in the movie because Wayne wanted him. He should not have been. Wayne seemed to like pop singers backing him up in his movies.

The Cohen Brothers' version is sprinkled with sparkling performances from smashing character actors like Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper (whose teeth are so bad in this one that you'll look around for a dentist). The bad guys in the original were not memorable, although they included Robert DuVall.

The true star of both movies remains the wonderful late 19th-century writing in Charles Portis' 1968 bestseller, much as it was in Clint Eastwood's classic and Oscar winning "The Unforgiven." The stilted, stiff and formal language is a highlight of the book because that language is used so effectively to show these people in their natural habitat, not in ours. It translates well to the 42-foot screen, especially when the dialogue is coming from Jeff Bridges or Hailee Steinfeld.

Go see this one and be prepared to laugh out loud all the way through. It's a delightful experience.

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