If you enjoyed our two prior surveys of marquee matchups between near-identical film projects (which can be found here and here), we’ve got a further foray of films that went fist city for your entertainment dollar.
Premise: Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday battle the Clantons at the O.K. Corral.
Overview: The saga of the Earps, the Clantons and the O.K. Corral has been told onscreen many times before, most famously in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine and John Sturges’ Gunfight At The O.K. Corral. Despite the iffy prospect of releasing a western in the ‘90s, Hollywood deemed it was time to retell the story again—twice! Both were all-star affairs, but took significantly different approaches. Tombstone, with Kurt Russell as Wyatt, Val Kilmer as Doc, and support from Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Powers Boothe and Stephen Lang, went the popcorn route. Tombstone was also mired in production problems that made studio Disney so disenchanted that it refused to advance-screen the finished effort for critics. Meanwhile, Wyatt Earp, helmed by Lawrence Kasdan, took the long, meditative, epic route, with Kevin Costner as Earp and Dennis Quaid as Doc, both receiving able support from Gene Hackman, Mark Harmon, Bill Pullman and Tom Sizemore as Bat Masterson.
Critical and Box-Office Consensus: A real surprise here: Tombstone won the critical and box-office shootout. Issued during Christmas-time, the crowd-pleasing sagebrusher brought a respectable $57 million (on a $25 million budget) and got solid reviews, many of them pointing out Kilmer’s charismatic turn as the alcoholic, tubercular Holliday. Despite its classy pedigree, Wyatt Earp, issued the following summer, drew less than half of its reported $63 million budget and received less than enthusiastic reviews.
Sweepstakes Winner: Tombstone, leaving Wyatt Earp in the dust.
Premise: Robin of Locksley and his Merry Men rob from the rich, give to the poor and battle the bad guys in and around Sherwood Forest.
Overview: Here’s a case where a big-budgeted, star-studded studio film squeezed its competitor to oblivion—or in this case, TV. Kevin Costner plays the swashbuckler in the $50 million Warner Brothers epic Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, while Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Alan Rickman, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio fill out the key supporting roles. The event movie’s bigness made Fox move the lower-budgeted Patrick Bergin / Uma Thurman starrer Robin Hood to the Fox Network in America for broadcast (although it played in theaters throughout Europe).
Critical and Box-Office Consensus: The reviews for Prince Of Thieves were mediocre at best, as several critics pointed to Costner’s on-again, off-again British accent. Most agreed, however, there were cool aerial arrow effects. Regardless, the film was a huge hit both in the U.S. and overseas, totaling nearly $400 million. The Bergin version has amassed a strong following over the years, with many swashbuckler boosters comparing the Irish actor’s turn favorably to Errol Flynn.
Sweepstakes Winner: Despite its popularity and Rickman’s terrific turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham, we’re going with the Bergin version.
Never Say Never Again (1983) / Octopussy (1983)
Premise: James Bond returns, in more ways than one.
Overview: Who would have thought Sean Connery would return to the role of James Bond after a 12-year absence? But here he was—and competing against second-in-line replacement Roger Moore and the producers of his previous 007 outings in the same summer! Director Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) was recruited to make Sean shine again as the super-agent in a remake of Thunderball, while Moore tried to stop international jewel thieves and Russian terrorists with nuclear warheads.
Critical and Box-Office Consensus: As expected, both films cost lots to make, and, despite Octopussy being issued four months in front of Never, both movies did about the same at the box-office, taking in about $55 million. Everyone, it seemed, was pulling for Connery’s triumphant return, but critics pointed out the slower pacing, disappointing musical score (courtesy of Michel Legrand) and less-than-spectacular action set pieces that came with the Never Say Never Again turf. At the same time, Octopussy was up to the same tongue-in-cheek humor, unbelievable stunts and goofy asides (007 in a gorilla suit) that came to be expected from the Moore era of Bond.
Sweepstakes Winner: We don’t mind a Moore Bond flick if it’s entertaining, and Octopussy was more fun than Never Say Never Again. This is a case in which Moore is not less.
Premise: Laughs and scares mix as werewolves go on the prowl.
Overview: It’s not unusual to see a low-budget counterpart to a big-budget film be released earlier to steal its thunder. Here’s a case, though, where the practice had little effect and both films fared well. Directors Joe Dante and John Landis both showed off their ability to garner shocks and chuckles in equal measure with these enterprises. Dante’s Howling stars Dee Wallace as a news reporter whose investigation of a serial killer leads her to a weird rural self-help commune. Where wolves? Everywhere, it seems. Landis’ American Werewolf follows two Yanks (David Naughton, Griffin Dunne) as they find ferocious horror in the moors of England. Both films offered amazing special effects and transformation scenes that made you almost forget Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Larry Talbot.
Critical and Box-Office Consensus: Both were well-received and are now regarded as classic examples of horror-comedy by genre experts. Dante’s low-budgeter brought in $18 million on its paltry $1.5 million tab, while American Werewolf saw a $30 million take on a $10 million investment. The Howling also saw six—count ‘em—sequels sans Dante that had little or nothing to with the original. There was An American Werewolf In Paris, released in 1997, that didn’t fare well with critics or catch on at the box-office.
Sweepstakes Winner: We’re giving it to The Howling—by a hair.
Prefontaine (1997) / Without Limits (1998)
Premise: The triumphant and tragic life of Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine.
Overview: Although productions of competing biopics of topical figures frequently get announced, it’s rare that both come to fruition. But here’s a case where, in fact, both saw the light of day, and neither benefited from the situation. Prefontaine, the first dramatic feature from Hoop Dreams creators Steve James and Peter Gilbert, stars Jared Leto as the University of Oregon running phenom who finds glory under coach Bill Bowerman (R. Lee Ermey) and goes on to Olympic success, but meets an untimely demise at the age of 24. Without Limits, which was originally called Pre, was written and directed by legendary screenwriter Robert Towne, and told essentially the same story. The budget was higher than Prefontaine’s (though not lavish), and it starred Billy Crudup (in a role envisioned for Tom Cruise, who produced) as the athlete and Donald Sutherland as Bowerman.
Critical and Box-Office Success: Perhaps knowing that its big-budget counterpart was on its way, Disney gave Prefontaine little respect. The studio released the modestly budgeted film sparsely throughout the country, where it received mixed reviews. Warner kept juggling the release date for Without Limits, eventually putting it out on a limited scale a year-and-a-half after Prefontaine hit theaters. The $25 million effort sputtered, taking in less than $1 million.
Sweepstakes Winner: Without Limits. While neither film raced to victory in theaters, Without Limits is a fine character study that is extremely well-acted by Crudup and Sutherland, and remains exciting and inspiring.
Like Father, Like Son (1987) / Vice Versa (1988) / 18 Again! (1988)
Premise: Dad (or granddad) switches bodies with their younger son (or grandson).
Overview: Role reversal comedies. We’ve seen them before and we’ll see them again—but three in a period of six months? Like Father has surgeon Dudley Moore drinking potion-spiked Tabasco sauce and turning into a rambunctious kid, while son Kirk Cameron becomes his borrrring father. Visa Versa finds stuffy businessman Judge Reinhold shifting places with high school student son Fred Savage, thanks to the magic of an ancient skull. 18 offers George Burns is the 81-year old millionaire who gets a new lease on life—and new body—when he trades places with grandson Charlie Schlatter.
Critical and Box-Office Consensus: While none of them made big waves at the box-office, Like Father, Like Son did decent business, probably because it was first out of the box, and Dudley Moore had not hit the box-office downslide that was to occur shortly afterward in his career. By the time the other two movies came, audiences had a distinct “been there, done that” feeling that didn’t add to their box-office appeal.
Sweepstakes Winner: Even though three entries have similar premises, similar wacky comedy sequences, and similar lessons learned by role reversals, we’re going with Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage in Vice Versa. Reinhold does some nifty physical comedy routines, Savage brings his Wonder Years likeability to the table, and the script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (The Commitments, Across The Universe) is genuinely affecting.
Catch your breath, because we’ve got one more heap of head-to-heads to share in the near future.