- - Thursday, September 15, 2011

For decades, dramatists and filmmakers have followed playwright Anton Chekhov’s rule that a gun placed above a mantel at the beginning of a story must be used in the end. “Straw Dogs” ups the ante: Forget the gun hung above the fireplace. What about a bear trap?

Director Rod Lurie’s Americanized remake borrows the hanging steel trap, and much else, from Sam Peckinpah’s gritty 1971 classic about class, education and social friction in rural England.

Mr. Lurie, who gets a co-writing credit alongside the film’s original scripters, has moved the setting to the contemporary American South, but he’s also left quite a bit alone. It’s a surprisingly respectful adaptation, with many scenes and lines of dialogue remaining virtually unchanged.

But the tweaks he’s made don’t make the remake any better — quite the opposite. And the bits that remain the same lack the unsettling kick of Peckinpah’s original. Mr. Lurie has managed the neat but unfortunate trick of being simultaneously too faithful and not faithful enough.

Peckinpah’s film was a masterpiece of psychological terror and personalized tension, a Chekhovian clash of classes that marched grimly toward its inevitable violent conclusion. The movie starred an in-his-prime Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner, a nebbish math professor working on a fellowship at his attractive young wife’s (Susan George) country house. The working-class locals didn’t take kindly to his perceived aloofness, his education or his fancy convertible, a symbol of wealth and easy living in the midst of a struggling blue-collar town. Peckinpah’s movie let the angry locals, led by a group of roof workers rebuilding Mr. Hoffman’s garage, push and push - until finally Mr. Hoffman pushed back.

Mr. Lurie’s remake casts James Marsden in Mr. Hoffman’s role, and Kate Bosworth as his wife. Like Miss George, Miss Bosworth remains blonde, flirty, pouty and leggy — as much a symbol of Sumner’s wealth and distance as his money. But a miscast Marsden offers little more than a shallow rehash of Mr. Hoffman’s performance. Mr. Hoffman could be snippy, nervous, needy and frightening all at once. Mr. Marsden merely manages to offer a reminder of how much better Mr. Hoffman played the role.

That’s true of much of Mr. Lurie’s take as well. Peckinpah wasn’t afraid to handle the audience with sandpaper — a notorious mid-film rape scene still shocks today. Mr. Lurie repeats the scene, including some of the flash-bang editing that made it so searing. But the only thing that feels like it’s being violated is Peckinpah’s movie.

Mr. Lurie’s remake doesn’t alter the structure, but the change in setting does add a not-so-subtle political subtext. There’s still a class clash, but it’s bound up in conservative lifestyle and politics. Mr. Lurie seems to want viewers to cheer on Sumner’s final acts of revenge as triumphs of empowered liberalism against bullying Southern conservatism.

It would help, of course, if Mr. Lurie knew anything about the people he’s set up as his bad guys. The movie was shot in Louisiana, but it’s hard to believe he’s actually spent much time in the rural South — all he offers are tired caricatures of redneck menace and stupidity.

Mr. Peckinpah’s film was a brutal parable about the triumph of the civilized individual. Mr. Lurie’s is a simple-minded fantasy about beating back a group of people he clearly doesn’t know, but is sure he doesn’t like.

★½

TITLE: “Straw Dogs”

CREDITS: Directed by Rod Lurie. Written by Mr. Lurie, Sam Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman

RATING: R for violence, language and a lengthy rape scene

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS