I get suspicious of remakes of foreign films, especially when they come so soon after the original release. In this case, Norwegian filmmaker Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 cop thriller Insomnia barely had time to relax after its limited art house run before getting picked up by the Hollywood adaptation police. This time, however, it's not a case of a great film being watered down, or slicked up, or turned into predictable hooey. There are two reasons for this: 1) this remake is smart, well-acted, and atmospheric; 2) the original wasn't that great.
If you missed the Norwegian film, the story differences are small but significant: in both movies, the big city detective looking into the murder of a teenage girl in a remote Arctic town where the sun never sets all summer – played before by Stellan Skarsgård and now by Al Pacino – is haunted by a scandal. In the original, it's because the cop sexually harassed a witness. Here it's because he had planted evidence at the scene of a crime back in Los Angeles, and Internal Affairs is investigating him. This change already makes you feel less unsympathetic to this fallen lawman.
A key plot point happens early on when the cop, in heated pursuit of the girl's killer in thick fog, accidentally shoots and kills his own partner – and the killer is the sole witness. A nice twist in the American version has the partner (Martin Donovan) in a position where he's about to spill the beans to Internal Affairs, thereby giving Pacino a motive for killing him. This justifies his desperate attempt to cover up the accident, and his willingness to make a deal when the killer (Robin Williams) suggests they team up to find a patsy to pin both deaths on. When Skarsgård agreed in the original, he did so because he was an amoral creep. Again, this change makes Pacino's character much more relatable than Skarsgård's. It works up to a point, but the story starts falling apart once you stop buying that an inherently decent cop would even bother talking to a psychotic like Williams, much less seriously try to make a deal with him.
Williams, for his part, plays it straight, and it's refreshing to see him tone down the mawkishness he's become known for in his more "serious" films. But as in the original, his character is all talk – and it's pretentious, overly-written talk at that. That's the sinker for both films: so much rides on the charisma and pathological nature of this character, yet the story never makes him a convincing enough foil for the sleep-deprived detective.
Oh well, there's still a couple of exciting chase scenes, and Hilary Swank is effective in an otherwise thankless supporting role (which only appears in the American version; "Put a girl in it!" you can almost hear the studio heads shout). But it's the numerous plot holes and the high "Oh come on" factor that keep Insomnia – either version – from being great.
As for hotshot Memento director Christopher Nolan, he revives the sweaty, claustrophobic visual style from his previous film, but doesn't seem to have a distinctive viewpoint yet.