TERRE HAUTE —
When it comes to westerns, my taste leans toward Clint Eastwood, who stares down bad guys with a disgusted grin.
Still, the undisputed hero of American cinema’s Old West was John Wayne. “The Duke” saddled up for 95 cowboy flicks, according to IMDB.com, from “The Great K & A Train Robbery” in 1926 to “The Shootist” in 1976. His most acclaimed role came as Rooster Cogburn in 1969’s “True Grit.” He rode off with an Oscar for that one.
Re-creating such a classic requires, well, true grit.
Realizing that, my wife and I took her folks (my father-in-law is an avid John Wayne fan) and our kids to see the new “True Grit.” Jeff Bridges’ version of U.S. Marshal Cogburn may be too inebriated to accurately shoot down tossed corn cakes, but this remake hits the entertainment bull’s-eye.
Now, Wayne purists will immediately notice that Bridges bares little physical resemblance to the original Cogburn. Actually, Bridges’ character looks more like an infamous 2003 mugshot of Wayne’s “True Grit” co-star, singer Glen Campbell, after a skirmish with the law in Arizona. Nonetheless, with his unruly hair, wild beard, and gravely voice uncleared by frequent gulps of whiskey, Bridges’ Cogburn otherwise closely follows in The Duke’s bootsteps.
He still gets the job done.
The story, from a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, finds 14-year-old Mattie Ross determined to bring her father’s killer, fugitive Tom Chaney, to justice. The spunky kid hires Cogburn — one-eyed and habitually intoxicated, but also effective — to hunt down Chaney. Mattie (played beautifully by a gutsy, yet proper Hailee Steinfeld) insists on riding along. They’re joined by a principled, literature-quoting Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) who’s been tracking Chaney for crimes in the Lone Star State.
The trio share just one common interest — the apprehension of Chaney. Dysfunctional as they are, together, they pull it off. Bridges, Steinfeld and Damon succeed, too, reprising the roles first played by Wayne, Campbell (as La Boeuf) and Kim Darby (as Mattie).
The rough edges of frontier life remain fairly gritty in the updated movie. Viewers get a vivid reminder that, for example, dental hygiene was not a high priority in 1870s Oklahoma. The leader of an outlaw gang, Ned Pepper (played, ironically, by Barry Pepper), could use a thorough teeth cleaning and a root canal. Also, this “True Grit” reinforces the gruesome nature of hangings. And, Cogburn’s drinking reaches an embarrassing level when he tries to prove his marksmanship while fully loaded, so to speak. (Saddle-bag corn cakes can also serve as clay pigeons.)
What the film sacrifices in the nostalgic romance of classic westerns, it gains in believability. Bridges looks and sounds like an irascible, drunken, 19th-century quasi-lawman. Steinfeld is even more convincing in her movie debut, going eye-to-eye with shady men, crossing a river in neck-deep water on horseback, and consistently refusing to take “no” for an answer in pursuit of the guy who killed her dad. Her desire to see Chaney hang burns in her young eyes.
Who knows if Wayne, who died in 1979, would approve of “True Grit” the second time around? Most likely, he would. Hollywood has all but left his genre in the dust. Westerns are rare nowadays. Duels in a dusty street of a High Plains town seem almost quaint (if a gunfight can be considered quaint), compared to the limb-severing showdowns with automatic weapons of modern fare. The new “True Grit” comes as close to family entertainment as anything without animation these days, with minimal language and violence.
That family quality added to the fun of the remake. My wife grew up watching westerns in her family’s living room, alongside her dad and mom. The latest “True Grit” gave them the chance to do that again. That would make The Duke smile.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or email@example.com.