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Sam Bowden is a small-town corporate attorney. Max Cady is a tattooed, cigar-smoking, bible-quoting, psychotic rapist. What do they have in common? Fourteen years, ago Sam was a public defender assigned to Max Cady's rape trial, and he made a serious error: he hid a document from his illiterate client that could have gotten him acquitted. Now, the cagey, bibliophile Cady has been released, and he intends to teach Sam Bowden and his family a thing or two about loss.

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Cape Fear movie full length review - Worthwhile remake, but still not as good as the original

The original Cape Fear is one of those hidden gems that was well-reviewed and well-revered, but so few people discuss it that when one catches it on TV they are taken aback by how potent and suspenseful it truly is.

This works somewhat against Martin Scorsese's remake in that the original is a film that does not show its age and thus is not really a necessary candidate for a remake. Those who have not seen the original may well rate this film higher than I have.

The film opens with the release of brutal ex-con Max Cady (Robert DeNiro) who makes a beeline to a small Southern town to launch a reign of terror on attorney Nick Nolte and his family. Apparently Nolte did not represent DeNiro at his best when he realized DeNiro was guilty in an assault and DeNiro holds him responsible for his time served. The harassment systematically escalates from pettiness to outright physical assault to murder culminating in a confrontation at Cape Fear.

There are a number of things that work well in the remake. Scorsese's decision to keep Bernard Herrmann's chilling score from the original and the surreal Saul Bass-inspired opening credits are among them. The screenplay remains largely faithful in its essentials to the original film and that is for the best.

Whereas Gregory Peck, Polly Bergen and especially Robert Mitchum were performing at their peak, the acting in the remake is a mixed bag. Nolte turns in his best performance as the morally ambiguous attorney - a strong piece of acting much more impressive than his Oscar-nominated turn from The Prince of Tides the same year. Jessica Lange, fury barely repressed as his put-upon cuckolded wife, turns in the best performance in the film in a role that could have been forgettable. By contrast, the much-acclaimed work from DeNiro and Juliette Lewi (as the teenage daughter) seems less impressive. The daughter has been re-imagined from a normal red-blooded young girl into a paragon of dysfunction. Lewis plays with her hair, mumbles her lines and fidgets all over the place. This may be an actress's dream role, but she comes across as dim-witted, slightly trashy and annoying - attributes that limit the concern we have for her when DeNiro begins to menace her. DeNiro is off the deep end, and not in a good way. Mitchum's Cady was utterly chilling, in part because he was always credible and was able to attack the family in such brilliant ways that they could do nothing about it. DeNiro plays the part as though he were auditioning for Freddy Kruger. His Max Cady is a fantastic boogeyman capable of near-ludicrous feats that ultimately - particularly in the final third - strain credibility at every turn. The incident under the car may be creepy on first glimpse, but utterly foolish when one thinks too long on it and far less convincing than how Mitchum trailed the family in the original.

The update also makes a mistake that modern films make in thinking that it is somehow more fascinating/terrifying by showing morally flawed protagonists being victimized. Underneath the surface, there seems to be a Puritan mindset that maybe they have it coming a little bit because they are so dysfunctional. In reality, the opposite is far more frightening. It is infinitely scarier when an upright person does all the right things and manages to still be targeted by evil - it happens all the time. One does not have to do something to invite it in as this (and many) films seem to believe.

Scorsese's direction is first-rate throughout and he demonstrates what a flair he has for thrillers. He does lose it a bit at the climax though with the old is-he-dead-or-is-he-coming-back cliché and setting everything during a howling storm with white water rapids gushing about. It has a tendency to come across as an assault on the senses and a wall of noise. Even wih those flaws, this definitely ranks as one of the better remakes, but one would do even better by catching the original film on cable. Or, even better, see them both and contrast.