Taxi (1998) Unrated, 86 Minutes – 3 Stars
Directed by Gérard Pirès
Written by Luc Besson
Cast: Samy Naceri, Frédéric Diefenthal and Marion Cotillard
Taxi (2004) Rated PG13, 97 Minutes – 1 Star
Directed by Tim Story
Written by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon and Jim Kouf
Cast: Queen Latifah, Jimmy Fallon, Jennifer Esposito and Henry Simmons
How can you mess up “Taxi”???? The original was a huge hit in Europe and french Canada; and with good reason. It’s a balls to the wall adrenaline soaked action movie with effective comedy bits. Just think of a lighter hearted “Lethal Weapon” with cars. It’s no masterpiece but it’s FUN dammit. What was so wrong that it needed tampering?
The Story: (original): Emilien (Frédéric Diefenthal), is a cop with a problem. He’s crap behind the wheel and still hasn’t been able to get his driver’s license after eight tries. On top of that he’s part of an unsuccessful task force to capture German bank robbers who use hopped up Mercedez-Benz’s as getaway cars. The Germans have gotten so bold that they tell the cops which banks they’re going to rob ahead of time so they can thumb their noses at the law while they escape.Since this is a buddy movie, he meets Daniel (Samy Naceri) an ex-pizza delivery guy turned taxi driver whom he catches red handed doing 130+ miles per hour. As Emilien is moments away from taking Daniel’s licence away, he starts thinking. With the way they drive, it’s obvious that the thieves are professional race car drivers, so who better to know the mind of a racer than another racer? Emilien makes Daniel a deal. Drive him around, help him catch the bad guys, and they’ll let all that speeding stuff slide.
The Story (remake): Like a bizarro version of the original, entire segments are lifted verbatim from the Luc Besson version, but when watched back to back with the original there’s something off with the shared scenes.
What worked in the 1998 french film fails miserably in the 2004 American one. Not to mention that what was changed doesn’t work at all.
Bike courrier turned Taxi driver Belle (Queen Latifah) has a recently demoted cop named Washburn (Jimmy Fallon) hop into her cab one morning and comandeer it to the scene of a bank robbery. When the thieves escape, Washburn orders Belle to go after them. They lose the bad guys in spectacular fashion and Belle ends up with her cab confiscated by the FBI. Washburn then lies to Belle, pretending he has any kind of power to get her wheels back, and asks for help. Seems he has a wee bit of trouble driving and he’ll need someone to help him solve this string of bank robberies that his ex-girlfriend is heading. Washburn has nothing to do with the case, he’s supposed to be directing traffic, but he’s desperate to impress his ex.
The Directors (original/remake): This is a rare case where neither director stands out. Both Tim Story and Gérard Pirès were salaried employees, hired to go “action” every once in a while and make sure no one flubbed their lines. Story only has “Barbershop” under his belt as a major film and Pirès hadn’t made a movie in 17 years when he was hired to do the French original. If anything, Story leaves a little bit more of an impression, but that’s hardly a good thing when the film sucks so bad. Pirès is virtually anonymous in his role of director. He was replaced by Gérard Krawczyk for the French “Taxi” sequels and, to be honest, the difference is negligable.
The screenwriter (original): Luc Besson is arguably one of the most succesful and commercial filmmakers to come out of France. His films can be compared to a mix of James Cameron and Francois Truffeaut. After the massive success of “The Fifth Element” he became a one man movie machine for French studios and wrote and produced half a dozen action films between 1996 and 2000. One of these was “Taxi”. The screeplay itself is one of his lesser efforts (not surprising since it was written in thirty days). But it’s a skillfull and clever effort nonetheless.
The screenwriters (remake): (two of the guys from the old “Viva Variety” show on Comedy Central and the monster responsible for “Snow Dogs”) First, let’s take away their “Screenplay By” credit. They don’t deserve it. In fact, they should be ashamed about calling themselves “writers” after this. The job of these people was merely to watch to original film on video and then add a little sass, a little Hollywood, a few sitcom jokes and an Eddie Murphy/”48 Hours” feel. It doesn’t take three people to do that. The Script-O-Tron 3000 could have done the same in ten minutes.
The screenplay (original): The first thing you retain from “Taxi” is a sense of familiarity. We’re in well established territory here. However, there’s a kind of enthusiasm about the material that carries it through. Besson loves a good action film that makes you laugh, and like a talented raconteur he’s determined to entertain you no matter how well worn his subject is.
What’s misunderstood about film writing is that it’s a grand juggling act. Timing is everything. You could take the stupidest idea in the world and make it work if you pace it just right. Sort of like telling a good joke.
How many times has a Rabbi, The Pope and a boy scout walked into a bar? It’s always the same joke, but if the guy knows what he’s doing you’ll laugh. If you play to the strengths, gloss over the weaknesses and pause at just the right places you’ll get the reaction you want every time. Luc Besson is well aware of this. Character development is pushed to the forefront while shootouts are added almost as an afterthought. The chase scenes are elaborate, but never overlong. In the end we’re left with a script that realizes the cliches and limitations of the genre and uses them to its advantage.
The screenplay (remake): Two words, “total anarchy”. The most apparent problem is the overkill (high) and the level of humor (low). If Daniel goes 130 in the original, Belle has to go 230 in the remake. If Emilien’s mother smokes a little pot, Washburn’s mother has to be a complete drunk 24/7. If there’s a short shootout in the original, the remake has everything exploding or on fire within a two mile radius. If Emilien is a little clumsy, Washburn has to be a human gremlin. If the French version’s thieves are German race car drivers, the American version’s have to be Peruvian supermodels. None of these things could even remotely be called “improvements”.
It is NOT funny to mumble dialogue at someone so the bad guys can’t hear. It is NOT funny to be a funny drunk. It is NOT funny to have two characters speak in “funny” voices. It’s not funny to have Jimmy Fallon pretend he’s Cuban by doing a Scarface imitation. This is infantile comedy on the level of knock knock jokes and doing fart sounds with your armpits. Who wrote this s**t? Is he out of kindergarden yet?
Another major misstep is making the mistake that creepy is a good replacement for quirky. In the original, Emilien’s mother is one of those sugary sweet people, the type that gives sandwhiches to people they don’t know. In the remake she’s an alcoholic who’s blind drunk all the time. Were the writers so insecure that the only way they felt that the audience would accept a super nice lady would be because she was sauced to the gills? Great.
The Flaws (original): The original “Taxi” had a few unbelievable scenes but for the most part it took place on a planet earth with pretty much the same laws of physics as ours. There’s that annoying and uber-lame “tranforming” scene where Daniel’s taxi becomes a race car after he flips a few James Bond type switches, but the movie wisely skips over this part as quickly as it can and then ignores it for the rest of its running lenght. I think Besson put it in as a kind of in-joke about “The Fifth Element”. Which, of course, is about a futurist cab driver. Maybe the idea here is that Daniel is Korben Dallas’ great great granddad or something.
The Flaws (remake): Let’s keep it short shall we? The whole movie sucks. And unlike the original that kind of glossed over the silly bits, this film wallows in them like a pig in s**t. But the absolute worst is seeing Belle’s boyfriend mad at her because she doesn’t show up to his romantic dinner dates.Now, I might believe that Queen Latifah could be a plus sized woman working a bike messenger service. And I might believe that Jimmy Fallon’s moron of a character could ever get an undercover assignment. Hell, I might even believe in the inane car stunts presented. However, I refuse to believe that a man, any man, cares more about romantic evenings than a woman. There is NO way that I’m buying the sight of a thirtysomething construction worker sitting at home alone sighing because his freakin’ girlfriend isn’t there for the flowers and candles and whatever else he planned. Men might plan romantic stuff, agreed. However, when the women don’t show up we’d never get mad. We’d go “YES!!!!! FREEDOM!!” and run out the door to the nearest bar to hang out with our friends. What happened? Did Belle’s boyfriend get estrogen injections? Did his dick fall off? Where are his balls? In her purse?
Since they are such an integral part of each movie, one has to mention how spectacular some of the stunts are in the original and how yawn inducing they are in the remake.
There is a moment of character development in the original (not in the remake) where Daniel is given a farewell parade by his pals at the pizza place. They drive down the street and salute. Among them are stunt drivers on mopeds and superbikes, there to give Daniel a little show. To say that the following stunts are impressive is an understatement. One guy does a flip with a moped and another drives a motocross onto the top of a building without the aid of a ramp. There’s also a neat trick done on a superbike that I wouldn’t try if they paid me a million dollars. It’s all very real and very “extreme sports”. Pirès wisely decides only to show us a minute or two of this. Had it gone longer it would have messed up the flow of the film. As it stands now, it works perfectly.
In the remake, 99% of the car stunts are either computer enhanced or full CGI. They look about as real as Grand Turismo 3 on an X-Box. There’s never a minute where you go “whoa!” or whistle appreciatively. You just sit there and try to figure out if they used a real car on a platform or if they shot an empty street and added it later or what. Pathetic.
The opening scene:
Both films open with the main character being timed on his/her vehicle to prove that it’s possible to get from point A to point B in a busy section of the city in less than a few minutes.
In the original, we’re introduced to Daniel as he races around Marseilles to the sound of Mirsilou (the opening song from Pulp Fiction) on a moped. He’s nuts but nothing he does defies the laws of gravity or physics.
In the remake, Queen Latifah races a messenger bike through Macy’s department store, through a busy subway station (and a subway car), jumps off a highway overpass onto the roof of a trailer truck and bounces the bike off the side of a van.
See what I mean about the overkill? In the original you laugh because of how reckless Daniel is. In the remake you sit stonefaced and wait for the inevitable lame punchline.
Also, in the original you know that it’s a real stunt driver on that moped risking life and limb in traffic to get a good shot. What he’s doing is possible. In the remake you just know it’s computers and editing that created the amazing “stunts”.
The closing scene:
Both films close with the bad guys chasing the good guys down an unfinished section of the highway. The good guys know that there’s a chunk missing from the road ahead and plan to use it to their advantage. The chase ends when the bad guys fly off the highway and onto a small “island” of concrete overpass. Both sides of which are unfinished and well over a hundred feet in the air. It’s impossible to get off and they’re trapped.
In the original, that’s pretty much it. The bad guys rage at our heroes who laugh and drive off into the sunset.
In the remake, we’re shown just how “hardcore” the bad guys are. They shoot Queen Latifah and force Jimmy Fallon to drive her car to the hospital. This, of course, is the big scene where Fallon’s character shows that he CAN drive and by golly he’s going to use his newfound powers to save his friend’s life.
I won’t even bother commenting.
Samy Naceri (Daniel): Through dialogue and action we know that Daniel is made from the same mold as Bam Margera. He’s anti-authoritarian, he’s a showoff and he’s giddy in the face of danger, but most of all it’s his desire to please that sells us the character. We’re aware of it at a subconscious level, so when Emilien and he team up we know that he’s not just helping this cop because he wants his driver’s licence back. He’s helping the man because he wants someone to be happy with him. It’s very subtle, but it’s there. This character trait is cemented even further when Daniel tells Emilien why he’s driving a cab when what he really wants to do is race in the Formula 1. The script makes Daniel a fully realized person, but Naceri gives it that extra push that makes us believe he’s almost real.
Queen Latifah (Belle): I had never watched a movie of hers before “Taxi”. I she was nominated for an Oscar for “Chicago” and I know that there’s a consensus that she’s an actress with a lot of potential. After watching her in this dreck I have to agree. Latifah manages to come out of this disaster looking good. The movie itself is horrible in every way imaginable, but Latifah makes an effort to be decent in her role. Unlike Cuba Gooding Jr. who won an Oscar and then went on to coast his way through one terrible film after another, Latifah tries hard to make the film work. Nothing could save the movie and her role is completely wrong for her, but she gives it her best and that’s something.
It was a terrible idea to cast a woman in a role that’s so obviously meant for a guy. I don’t mean to sound sexist, but there ARE differences between men and women. Women don’t worship cars like men do. A woman will like a car for how it looks or sounds, but she’s not going to be driving it on two wheels or trying to jump a bridge any time soon. This is uniquely a testosterone thing. Women aren’t cocky, self-assured and reckless like men; and they’re especially not stupid in the way men are. Latifah is perhaps the only female who could make us half-believe in the character of Belle. But it’s not enough. Daniel/Belle is a guy.
Frédéric Diefenthal (Emilien): Again, the role from the original has a depth not present in the remake. I don’t know if it’s the French thing but Diefenthal manages to be both intelligent and bumbling at the same time. He might look clumsy at first impression, but every word out of his mouth cements the fact that this is a smart man who is just very very unlucky.
Jimmy Fallon (Washburn): Someone has to sit Fallon down and explain to him that he’s not on Saturday Night Live anymore. That immediate rush to the punchline with no buildup might work on the show, but it doesn’t work in movies. Where Diefenthal plays bumbling, Fallon plays retarded. Then again, with a script this bad it’s hard to say where the blame lies. If Fallon had put aside the pratfalls and Jerry Lewis-esque mannerisms he would have come out of this looking better. Not great, but better.
There’s a scene from the original film that illustrates how night and day the writer’s approach to the character’s were. Near the beginning of the French “Taxi” the cops are at a bank robbery. Emilien thinks he sees something and opens his car door to get out. Before he can do more than swing it open it’s hit by a car, which then careens out of control and causes carnage the likes of which are hard to imagine until you see it. It’s funny as hell because all he did was open that damn door without looking. We all do it.
In the remake, it’s almost as if Washburn is TRYING to f**k up. The character itself is unintelligent beyond belief. There’s no comparative scene in the remake, but if it had been Washburn instead of Emilien he wouldn’t just have opened that car door. He would have run out into the street shooting wildly at passing automobiles. What’s funny when it’s an honest accident isn’t funny when it’s on purpose.
Emilien is intelligent, it’s just that he’s a man of theory and gets a little bogged down when it comes time to act in the real world. Washburn is just a dumbass.
They did try to imitate the Emilien scene with one of Washburn trying to flag down a ride. He steps in front of the car, which then slams on its brakes and causes a pileup of vehicles straight out of “The Blues Brothers. One problem. The whole scene makes no sense. If someone slams on their brakes, even on a hella busy street, it’s not going to cause armageddon. While not wholly realistic the crash in the first “Taxi” is at least plausible. In the remake the crash is just loud and senseless. Not the same thing at all.
Why anyone greenlit the remake is impossible to fathom. It had no staying power at the box office and will have no shelf life in the video store. My guess is that once it dissapears from the New Releases section it will be quietly moved to a far corner until the DVD is scratched or damaged, after which it will not be replaced.
On the other hand, the original 1998 “Taxi” is well worth a look. It’s no masterpiece but it’s quite a lot of fun and the hour and a half spent in its company doesn’t feel wasted. It works because the character development is complete. We’re watching all these wild things happening to “people”, not actors.
When viewed back to back the clear winner is the original. There is simply no contest. The remake is too bland, too Hollywood and too ill advised. It’s been a week since I saw the American version and I can barely remember it. Not a good sign.
Remakes offer a unique experience to understand the craft of filmmaking. You have two different films based on the same story and ideas; two different cast and crews, two different levels of talent, two different points of view. More often than not, one of these films is quite good, and the other is terrible. By comparing the two we can analyze where one went right and the other went wrong.