In 1971, Sam Peckinpah - as he had done so many times before - shook us up with a tale of bloody violence. Straw Dogs (based on the novel, The Siege of Trencher's Farm) unleashed a motley bunch of mad dog Englishmen intent on getting very medieval on wimpy Dustin Hoffman and his beautiful screen wife, Susan George. The film became a byword for gratuitous violence and afterwards you could never look a bear trap in the teeth the same way again. Since then we've had many reworkings of this theme of violent home invasion and class warfare, most memorably Michael Haneke's Funny Games (the original version) and the underrated and disturbing Eden Lake.
Rod Lurie's remake of Straw Dogs is pretty faithful to the original carve-up, and in some ways that's its problem. At times it's almost text-book mimicry with the two leads (bespectacled James Marsden and willowy blonde Kate Bosworth) physically looking very much like George and Hoffman, right down to Dusty's iconic smashed glasses.
There is one big difference.
Rather than seemingly bucolic England, we're in deepest Mississippi, where the only thing missing is some odd-looking lad hammering ferociously at a banjo. Hey, even the town is called Blackwater which sounds awful like, well take an educated guess. So we get a Straw Dogs with a sledgehammer, nail gun and bear trap and even a lengthy explanation of the film's cryptic title - something Peckinpah couldn't be bothered with in the more atavistic and disturbing original. The result is a film that tries too hard but is simply too clean, too literal and too obvious.
We get this from the opening sequence in which two vehicles - one, a pick-up with deer's antlers strapped to the front and the other, a sports car emblazoned with a Jaguar marque - are seemingly on a collision course. Whatever can it mean? The shame is that we got a flicker of what might have been before this in a deer kill in which heavy-booted hunters approach a stricken animal. One of them produces a nasty looking saw before another intervenes and puts a bullet in the dying deer.
The story itself is about the return of local girl Amy to the old family farm having made it big in Hollywood. Her husband, or Mr Pussy as the friendly natives tag him, is a writer currently working on a screenplay based on the siege of Stalingrad (this just might come in handy later). Amy's old flame, played by Alexander Skarsgård, still has the hots for her. So when he gets a job fixing the roof of the old farmhouse, you just know what's going to happen next. Or at least you should.
James Woods is the best thing in this rehash. He plays Coach: a short-sleeved, paunchy redneck fond of the Old Testament and meaner than a rattlesnake. Coach would pick a fight with a dead man. And woe betide any man who messes with his pretty and flirty cheerleading daughter. Unfortunately this just happens to a hulking local lad with an intellectual disability (played by Prison Break's Dominic Purcell).
Thus Straw Dogs plays out pretty much the same as the original with the locals winding up the pretty, well-heeled couple and petty harassment rapidly escalating to serious violence. It all builds to the expected brutal climax - buckets of gore with the unorthodox use of a nail gun and bear trap - but it's all curiously devoid of tension. It's not simply that we've been here before but that Lurie gives us nothing new. And while the transformation of Mr Wimpy into Mr Kick Ass was always going to take some convincing, I don't think that vigorously rubbing your spectacles with a cloth and flicking on an LP of country rock is all it takes.
Despite all, Straw Dogs is reasonably diverting, thanks mainly to Skarsgård's moody mix of Southern gent and bad old boy and Woods pulling out the stops as the drunken and demented Coach. But you still feel that it could have been so much more than a choreographed revenge tale starring a bear trap that should have had its own screen credit.