Get Carter: Michael Caine Does it Better

I like Sylvester Stallone – I really do. I like him when I’m watching an angry man out for revenge, a man of action with a lot of guns and a grim determination to get the justice that society wouldn’t give him the legal way. I recently rewatched and very much enjoyed the original “Rambo: First Blood.” But when you try to graft Stallone, Man of Action, onto a stylish gangster character like Jack Carter, you get, well, another Stallone Gets Even film.

I happened to find a VHS of the Stallone version of “Get Carter” the other day amongst my vast collection of videotapes, and, on a whim, I popped it in the player, and enjoyed a slightly out-of-place gangster with an ultra serious quest to get revenge on the people who killed his brother. The upscale urban settings and neo-rich sleazy businessman model worked well for a movie made in 2000. I enjoyed it and didn’t think much else of it, until I found out that it was a remake of a film from 1971 with the same title featuring one of my favorite actors – Michael Caine!

So nothing else would do but I had to scour my handy-dandy Netflix selections and find this hitherto unknown 70’s British gangster flick with the dashing and ever-seedy Michael Caine in the lead. What greeted me were amazingly rich tableaux that stood out, even behind the colorful working-class gang denizens and row house tarts. The bland, predictable urbanity of Stallone’s inhabited reality of Seattle gave way to a seedy, dirty, thoroughly working-class setting of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, a British coal town with very little of glamor (or shall I say “glamour?”) about it.

And Caine’s suave, not-quite silent assuredness cut through it in a manner that shows the ease with which he inhabits the role of the working-class man who made good in a bad way (he is a London gangster returning home to investigate his brother’s death). He is not bulky and uncomfortable the way Stallone seems. This could be a result of the re-working of the scenario, but I get the feeling that no amount of re-working could hide the fact that Stallone’s character had one level, and he stayed on that level through the whole film.

Michael Caine, on the other hand, is much more complex as Jack Carter. He’s obviously out to get whoever killed his brother -that’s the main point in both films. But Caine’s Carter is not a righteous good guy. He is a real gangster — one you can believe in. He’s a playboy, thoughtless, hair-trigger violent, hard-drinking killer. But where he stands out is the lightheartedness that exudes from him the entire time, as if he were a working-class James Bond.

Sure he’s going to get revenge, but he’s also going to get laid and have a bit of fun teasing the monobrows while he’s at it. A big difference between the two films is perhaps the era in which they were made. The 1971 film partook of the tail-end of the freewheeling 1960’s, when political correctness was only to be seen in textbooks, not in an action flick. By 2000, we are treated to many more subtle dysfunctional details that, in my opinion, bog down the film. The situation in the deceased brother’s family, the “other woman,” all that, are treated in the typical atmosphere of a straight family drama. It works well enough for a straight actioner, but “Get Carter” seems to work as a story so much more tightly when Michael Caine wielded the shotgun (naked in one scene!). His easy characterization might simply point to his own working-class origins, but I prefer to think of it as a case of brilliant casting.

The town itself stands out in the earlier film; Newcastle has a particular paint-peeling, close-packed feeling that exudes its own sort of oppression on the characters, whose flashy appurtenances seem to speak to their deep need to escape and the impossibility of their rowhouse and industrial slum condition. Both films go for the stylish, eye candy of their respective time periods, but, in my opinion, the earlier dank and dirty Newcastle setting beats out the modern millennial chic of Seattle, Washington. Oh yeah, and the ending is very different between the two, so prepare for that. Personally, after seeing Michael Caine play Jack Carter, I can’t go back to Stallone.

Final Word: Caine as Carter=Classic; Stallone as Carter=Pedestrian

Reviewer’s Note: No, I have not read the novel. Two versions of the movie are enough for me! Oh yes, and look for Caine making an appearance in a very different role in the Stallone film!

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