A cavallo della tigre / Riding the Tiger (2002, Italy)

I understand, to a degree, the attraction of updating this classic. There are quite a few departures from the original, so it’s not an exact remake, but I can’t think of one of those changes that would amount to an improvement on A cavallo della tigre (1961). Other, perhaps, than this being in colour.

The story is essentially the same; a prisoner who presents no threat at all to prison security is dragged along on an escape because others can’t trust him not to raise the alarm. Giancinto, in the 1961 version, was a good-natured, ingenuous man; here, Guido Liverani (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) may not be overly bright, but is more love-struck. A security guard in Milan, he meets a young, attractive woman, Antonella (Paola Cortellesi), is immediately smitten, leaves his wife for her, borrows money to impress her (and her young daughter), loses everything playing roulette, tries to recover the money by staging a hold-up (with his new love as the robber in a Father Christmas suit), and winds up in a Piedmont prison. He refuses to reveal the identity of his accomplice, and somehow Antonella is not charged and holds onto the stolen 348m lire.

With 17 days of his sentence to serve, he gets dragged into somebody else’s escape plot. He had earlier been leant on to substitute an aluminium tool for the real McCoy in the dentist’s room, and the two prisoners who are preparing to break out decide that it’s better if he’s not in a position to tell the prison staff about it. The two men engineer his transfer into their cell. Fatih (Tuncel Kurtiz) is a Turkish man in his late 60s who has possibly been in prison for 49 years; he murdered one man in a fight over a woman when he was 18, and killed another man in jail. There’s no suggestion that he’s been out of jail in that time, and he retains a fearsome reputation. The other man, Hamid, (Boubker Rafik), is a much younger, and a Moroccan. At night, they work on cutting the bars on their cell window.

On the day they plan to break out, Guido is called to speak to the guards, and is asked to explain what he did with the missing tool. He has been drugged by Fathi and Hamid and groggily tells the officers of the escape plot and what he has heard of the plans to leave via a manhole, the yard, and a tunnel opening into the river. The prison director sends him back to his cell so as not to arouse the suspicion of his cellmates, but is a little dubious. But when she attends the cell soon afterwards, there is a gaping hole in the barred window and no prisoners. Staff are promptly dispatched down the drains in the torrential rain, and to the river.

Back in the cell, the three prisoners emerge from a hole in the ceiling, covered by posters, à la Shawshank, and are collected by a corrupt guard, Spadazzi (R Manrico Gammarota), who leads them through a series of locked gates until they are outside. It seems to be a higher-risk strategy than going out the window, given that all the other prisoners would hear what’s going on. Prospect of getting away with it if you were Spadazzi? Zero.

And then they have to fend for themselves. The car that was supposed to pick them up, with Hamid’s girl Deborah (Emanuela Grimalda) in it, isn’t there; she had sent Hamid some dates to signify the day of the month she would be waiting for them, but Guido confesses to having eaten one or two before he delivered them to the cell. They are a couple of days early.

They nonetheless find Deborah, and she and Hamid do a bunk themselves, leaving Fatih keen to make his way to Anatolia and Guido desperate to see his beloved Antonella, who is in Liguria. They head for Genoa, but nothing quite goes as planned.

It might be unfair to compare it too much to the 1961 version, but none of the characters have the same impact. The prison scenes cover the same ground but the scheming lacks energy. Fatih, the feared hard man who breaks guards’ arms, is overwhelmingly warm and sentimental; Hamid is an irrelevance. The original film’s edge and irony, and Giancinto’s sense of honour, have all but evaporated, replaced by a love story. The two incidental love stories in the earlier version were of one man reconciling with the woman he had escaped from prison to kill, and of another’s gift to a woman who had deserted him for another; here, we are offered a rom-com, unlikely romance between an attractive young woman and a bloke who is not in her league. It’s a much more hopeful, saccharine view of the world, and the film suffers for it.

Even the phrase ‘riding the tiger’ sadly has to undergo an unsubtle shift – from a reference to someone embarking on a course of action that cannot be safely abandoned, to a more inspirational epithet about transforming one’s fear into courage.

This is a comfortable, watchable film, but it’s not a patch on the original.




Posted on September 12th, 2020 at 8:09 pm. Updated on September 12th, 2020 at 8:18 pm.

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