Like Neil Labute's failed remake of the British horror classic "The Wickerman," Rod Lurie's attempt to resurrect "Straw Dogs," the 1971 Sam Peckinpah thriller, is a film that might leave you scratching your head in wonder. The wonder is why Lurie thinks the Peckinpah horrific shoot-em-up, originally set in a remote English village needed to be moved to a small Mississippi town. And, indeed, why this cliche-ridden remake was necessary at all.
One tip-off that preview audiences were in for something foul came when searching Rotten Tomatoes. "Straw Dogs" had no reviews just a couple of weeks before its release. That usually means the studio knows its got a monumental stinker on its hands, and keeps the press away.
"Straw Dogs" (2011) isn't quite the train wreck I feared it would be, but it's got some flat acting and holes in its logic you could drive your pickup truck through. The original "Straw Dogs," like the original "Wickerman," commented on the insularity of British small town life. Where the first "Straw Dogs" felt like a journey to a strange place that was very real and very frightening, the retooled version feels like a journey to a familiar, yet meaner land inhabited by the cast of "The Dukes of Hazard."
Moving the story to the deep South allows the filmmaker to trot out every tired hillbilly redneck stereotype imaginable. Although "Straw Dogs" presents a multitude of crime, the film, strictly speaking, is not a crime film. It has more in common with American westerns, particularly those that strive to present a morality tale.
Weighing down the production is lead actor James Marsden, who simply hasn't got the acting chops to play the story's nebbish hero, David Sumner. Those who have seen Dustin Hoffman in the original role know what big shoes Marsden has to fill. Both he and Kate Bosworth, as David's wife, Amy, struggle to create the kind of on-screen chemistry that would make us care about this couple. But to little avail.
The two come off as spoiled and arrogant -- she a TV star, and he a screenwriter working on a script about the siege of Leningrad. That's a clue about what's to come in this movie.
Alexander Skarsgård, as Charlie, the local tough who takes a shine to Amy, is a credible presence, but James Woods, as the wildly inappropriate old-codger Coach, chews the scenery unmercifully, and should have been told to take his performance down several dozen notches on the histrionics meter.
The townsfolk seem friendly, at first, but little by little hostility starts to show toward the pair, as they zip around town in a Jaguar, instead of in a proper pickup truck as the locals do. Before she became a TV star, Amy was a child of this backwater town, and we learn that she has a history here that helps lead to the couple's troubles.
The couple comes to the remote hamlet to live in Amy's family's now empty home, recently after, we assume, her father's passing. The barn's roof is in ruins, and Amy and David hire Charlie and his fetid brood of backwoodsmen who would fit well in certain scenes of "Deliverance," to fix it.
The movie isn't really about much of anything, although heavy-handed references to old forgotten former football heroes and veterans of the war in Afghanistan are tossed around, but what are they supposed to mean?
It's hard to figure why Screen Gems gave this one a green light. Judging from the demographic of the preview audience, I'd say that hardly anyone was even aware that this film is a remake of another, and fewer still have seen the original. Don't studios do remakes of well-known properties so they can save on the promotional ad campaign? The reasoning is that you spend less in advertising if you don't have to explain in your ads what the movie's about.
They missed the boat on this one. Maybe for starters they'll do an ad campaign that will explain why they decided to do this remake. I'm waiting.