I finally got around to watching the original 1969 version of The Italian Job, and since the 2003 remake was sort of a part of my "childhood" (it was the first DVD I ever owned) I'd like to compare the two. Considering how iconic the original is and how some critics received the remake this will probably read for most people like a defense of the remake. So just to be upfront with my opinion so you can stop reading if you disagree, I genuinely enjoy most of the remake more than the original but can see that if I grew up with the original I might have liked it more. But let's talk about what makes both of these movies great and how the remake remade the original.
The first thing that strikes me about these movies is the difference in their endings. The ending of the 2003 remake is maybe the most disappointing thing for me about it. It's predictable, it's cheesy, it's just plain mediocre. The Good Guy gets the Girl, the Bad Guy dies. I mean, in a vaccuum these are fine things for a movie to do I guess but come on director F. Gary Gray, if that is your real name (and come to think of it I kind of hope it isn't—what were your parents thinking?), let's see some attempt at originality.
The ending is even more disappointing if you compare it to the 1969 original's ending. After acquiring the gold, the getaway bus (that's right, getaway bus) takes a bad turn on its escape route through the Alps, and winds up suspended over a cliff. With the crew on one side of the bus (the safe side) and the gold on the other (in danger of falling) with no apparent way to get the gold over to the safe side, Michael Caine claims he has a plan and then the credits roll. This sort of ending is precisely the kind that leaves you wanting more and often leads to the movie being played again from the beginning. I love (in this case literal) cliffhanger endings in movies since they don't get them as often as television does and they're especially exciting if there's no sequel to resolve it.
But wait, was there a sequel to the original? According to an interview with Michael Caine there was supposed to be a sequel but it never happened. In the theoretical sequel the gold would fall to the bottom of the Alps to be collected by the Italian mafia from which Michael Caine and crew would then have to resteal it.
Hang on, this sounds familiar. Yeah, isn't that basically what happens in the remake? Whether F. Gray Gary knew about the possibility of a sequel or not, the 2003 Italian Job looks a lot like the 1969 version would have with its unmade sequel attached. In the original the gold is stolen from a semi-anonymous agency (we know who they are but are never privy to their thoughts/actions) in Italy and then (in the sequel) the mafia takes it and it has to be stolen again. In the remake the gold is stolen from a semi-anonymous agency in Italy and then Edward Norton takes it and it has to be stolen again.
So I thought that was a cool thing.
This is making it sound like the two movies are the same except that the remake continued where the original left off, so let's talk about something the remake did differently: ensemble casting. In 2003's The Italian Job we get the obvious Michael Caine substitute in the form of Mark Wahlberg, but then we also get hilarious comic relief in the form of Seth Green, Mos Def, and Jason Statham helping Marky Mark out. The closest we get to developed characters (how many of them have scenes without Michael Caine?) teaming up with the lead in 1969 is when we learn that Professor Simon Peach likes... well, large women. Also helping the team is Charlize Theron, whose character not only provides a strong female lead (something decidedly lacking in the original) but also fundamentally changes the structure of the story (coincidentally my next point—it's almost like I planned this).
So for those of you who didn't know, there are two main types of stories in the story business (something none of my many English teachers managed to tell me): character-driven stories, and plot-driven stories. While it may seem like it should be obvious which is which it can be confusing at times, and this right here is a great example because the changes director F. Gary Gray made to the original turned what was a plot-driven movie into a character-driven one.
While Michael Caine is a character in the original in the sense that you'd definitely say of him, "That man is a character," the original Italian Job is much more about the Italian job itself than it is about Michael Caine. You don't watch it to see Michael Caine change and evolve from the character he begins as, you watch it to see the awesome heist at the center of the film. The remake, on the other hand, is character-driven not because it simply has more characters but because the motivation for the (second) heist is not just to get the money, but to get revenge. Edward Norton kills Donald Sutherland, the actual father of Charlize Theron and pseudo-adopted father of Mark Wahlberg, so stealing the gold back from him is not really about getting the gold back. As Charlize Theron says, it's about "seeing the look on his face". The end is (supposed to be) satisfying not because of some climactic spectacular screen-splosion (although there is that too) but because you identify with the characters and with the goals they achieve.
I have one final thing I want to talk about before ending this piece. The Mini Coopers. In the original this unique car choice is utilized perfectly. They need to navigate streets in unconventional ways, and they do it, and it looks cool and is fun to watch. In the remake they choose Minis so that they can drive into Edward Norton's house and steal his gold that way. What a freaking sweet idea, right? (Realism & such considerations aside of course.) But then it never happens. The size of the Minis becomes useful later on, but why did you include that plan to invade Norton's house if you weren't going to pull the trigger on it? Get it together man.
So which movie is better? That's for you (and possibly your parents/childhood) to decide.