Retro Film Review: 12 Angry Men (1997)

in #filmlast month

(source: tmdb.org)

(SPECIAL NOTE: Capsule version of the review is available here.)

In the age when there are fewer and fewer classic films that haven't been remade it is small consolation knowing that there are some that, due to their nature or subject matter, are unlikely to be transformed into modern Hollywood atrocities. One of such films is Sidney Lumet's 1957 classic drama 12 Angry Men, which could have been remade only as the cable television film - form currently more preferable to those viewers concerned about quality. The remake, using more or less unchanged 1957 script, was directed in 1997 by William Friedkin.

The plot is set in New York courtroom during one hot and humid afternoon. Twelve jurors are given the task of deliberating about fate of young Puerto Rican, indicted for murder of his father. All evidence points towards boy's guilt and most people in jury expect to reach decision quickly. However, Juror #8 (played by Jack Lemmon) dares to dissent and claims that there is some evidence that create reasonable doubt about boy's guilt. At first other jurors are appalled with this and angered over formality being turned into long and serious deliberation. Juror #8 nevertheless manages to gradually sway opinions and make his peers accept arguments in boy's favour.

William Friedkin, by deciding to stick to 1957 plot as much as possible, burdened himself with unenviable task of making new film look different. The updated version is shot in colour and set in modern times. Characters are occasionally using some phrases their 1957 counterparts couldn't and some references to mid 1990s films and sports events are also used. The most noticeable difference between two versions is in ethnic and racial composition of the jury - while 1957 jurors were all white men, 1997 jurors contain Latinos and blacks. Here Friedkin made mistake by not introducing women and even bigger mistake by transforming 1957 white racist into 1997 black anti-Semite. Mykelti Williamson plays that character over the top and his explicit racism is distraction to the story, unlike in the old version.

Inevitable comparisons are, of course, in favour of the old classic. Even with such giants like Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott, the modern cast couldn't match the power of people like Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. The acting is, of course, very good, but nevertheless disappointing compared to previous version. The biggest disappointment, however, comes from the missed opportunities. Reason why new version 12 Angry Men isn't as effective as in 1957 is in its reduced social relevancy - the old version dealt with issues of racial and social prejudice, something that isn't that relevant in "politically correct" world of today's America. If Friedkin really wanted different version of 12 Angry Men, he should have turned the plot upside down and, for example, have single juror trying to convince majority of someone's guilt rather than innocence. Although those missed opportunities can be lamented, 12 Angry Men is neverthelessa very interesting and occasionally entertaining film, at least to those viewers who haven't seen original.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on March 18th 2004)

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