Halfway through the filming of one of his last pictures, "El Dorado," director Howard Hawks was approached by his star, John Wayne, who asked: "Uh, Mr. Hawks? Didn't we already make this one?"
Hawks had indeed, a few years earlier, under the name "Rio Bravo," but he replied, "That's okay. Nobody'll notice."
That anecdote came to mind halfway through Mike Hodges' tough-as-nails "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." Uh, Mr. Hodges, didn't you already make this picture?
He hopes, I'm guessing, that nobody will notice, except graybeards such as moi, who recall the deliriously violent (and much better) "Get Carter" of 1971. (Pay no attention to the dreadful Sylvester Stallone remake of a few years back.)
"Get Carter" and "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" are so similar it's almost shocking. The basic story: A star hood learns that his younger, more innocent brother has died under extremely suspicious circumstances in a far city, a city he knows well. He returns there and begins an investigation that upsets the local organized-crime hierarchy; he encounters corruption, perversion, cynicism and pure brute ugliness. He responds in kind, leaving a trail of dead bodies, until he reaches the center of the conspiracy, the city's kingpin. Meanwhile, that kingpin has hired a hit man to take him down, so it's a race between which murderer scores first.
When Michael Caine starred in the original, the movie was so relentlessly violent it stunned critics and turned away audiences; it has emerged, years later, as a kind of cult object for those who like to play rough. As a thug who'd hit the big time in London, Caine stabbed and shot his way through the Newcastle underworld like a figure out of a samurai revenge film, and Hodges wasn't shy in detailing his psychosis. He was a '70s archetype: psycho as hero.
The new version is more sedate, more thoughtful, more ambivalent, softer, but the basic outline remains the same. Now the thug isn't coming back to a smaller town from London, he's going back to London from a smaller town. Sick of the slaughter, he has exiled himself to the sticks, where he's been living in a trailer, grown a beard and a shag of hair, turned into a kind of Johnny Appleseed.
The actor is the estimable Clive Owen, of "Croupier" and the title role in the upcoming "King Arthur." Like Caine, he has big-star chops; his charisma stops a room cold; his big dark eyes seem to reflect the world's misery; his powerful body frightens even the most brazen of hoods. Even as a minor figure in "The Bourne Identity," he was much more interesting than poor Matt Damon. But if Owen's Will Graham isn't any older than Caine's Jack Carter, Hodges is much older, and this is an older man's movie.
It's not nearly as physically violent, and there's not the sense of a lone avenger buzz-sawing his way through the organization. It has almost nothing that could be called "action." Will has to work himself to rage. He is self-aware, laden with memory and guilt (Jack Carter was pure instinctual wolf); he has to see and come to terms with old friends and old loyalties.
And the crime at the center -- the murder of the brother -- is fiendishly different. We never saw Carter's brother die; we just saw Carter, sitting on the train reading a Raymond Chandler novel, on the way to Newcastle. This time we begin with the brother (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a handsome young chap living the hot, fast life of a London dope dealer to the stars. What Davey doesn't know is that he's being watched by Malcolm McDowell -- that would be scary enough, no? -- but by McDowell as a big gangster named Boad. Now that's really scary!
In "Carter" everything was clear; in "Sleep" nothing is. We're not sure what business Boad is in (his day job is the owner of a high-end car business, and he lives like a king, a rich one) and what his enmity toward Davey is. But we watch him follow the young man, almost in an ecstasy of expectation, and the vibrations are powerful and disturbing. When at last he strikes, the result isn't a killing or a beating but -- the movie's one physically expressive scene -- a brutal prison-style rape. This leaves Davey devastated; sometime the next day, he kills himself.
One technical mistake: We learn all this up front, then we watch Clive Owen's Will Graham take a good 40 minutes to find it out all over again. We get, at Minute 50, to the spot we left at Minute 10. Not good storytelling.
But Will's quest goes on. He doesn't want to know just who, but why. So we stay with him as he consults a forensic examiner, a second forensic examiner and then a psychologist who's an expert on prison rape. The movie cannot seem to let the rape go, so Will doesn't even get around to his revenge until well past the midpoint, and then there's not enough time left to do it carefully. It seems almost anticlimactic.
In all, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" seems a bafflement. It has great mood and a sense of the toughness of the London underworld, but it never really gets into gear.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (102 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and the AFI Silver) is rated R for one scene of extreme violence.