Some unexpectedly great films have come from premises that, on paper, shouldn’t work at all. Likewise, there are plenty of bad movies that spawned from great concepts. It just goes to show that, in filmmaking, execution is everything. While Hollywood champions the notion of an “elevator pitch” which can sell a film based on its one-sentence synopsis, it’s sometimes necessary to skirt around this requirement. Some films, especially those driven by visionary creatives, do not lend themselves to succinct concepts; instead, the capacity of these films to succeed must, in some measure, be taken on faith.
There are plenty of reasons why a film might seem unimpressive in concept. In some cases, the film appears as another in a long line of unoriginal corporate reboots, remakes or IP cash-ins; other projects pitch adaptations of works considered unadaptable, while still others are based on original concepts, but ones that rely on the inexpressible reassurance of good filmmaking. In the current filmmaking climate, most great original films have only managed to materialize by keeping costs low, while many great films based on corporate assets are the result of hardworking, passionate creative teams who fight to transmit their vision amid a cautious studio framework. Here are 10 movies with questionable concepts that really delivered.
10 Phone Booth (2002)
The single-location thriller Phone Booth centers on an amoral press agent, played by Colin Farrell, who finds himself pinned down in a phone booth by an unseen sniper and expected to talk his way out over the phone. It’s an uneasy concept that could easily run out of momentum well before the end; thankfully for Phone Booth, the execution is there. The film is a strong turn from director Joel Schumacher, whose loaded visual sense helps him do a lot with the restricted location. Likewise, this is a great early performance from Colin Farrell, whose rising star saw a boost with this low-budget hit.
9 Pacific Rim (2013)
The premise for Pacific Rim reads like the fantasies of an eight-year-old: in the near future, when humanity is faced with a scourge of skyscraper-sized monsters, their only recourse is to build piloted giant robots to pit against the creatures in a fistfight. It’s an absurd premise that the plot doesn’t waste much time justifying. Pacific Rim requires the viewer to overcome any misgivings about the concept; in return, it offers a surprisingly compelling, character-driven story, as well as one of the most visually interesting sci-fi action blockbusters in recent memory, due to the work of visionary director Guillermo Del Toro.
8 Pig (2021)
In Pig, a chef who has isolated himself in the wilderness must return to the world he once knew after his truffle pig is stolen. The film positions itself as a gruffer John Wick clone, with the similar premise of a grieving legend losing a beloved animal. However, Pig’s execution sees it distinguish itself as a uniquely powerful, intimate drama. The film features a surprisingly understated Nicolas Cage in the main role as a chef unsure how to grieve his wife, while the quest for the pig proves an unexpectedly sturdy plot device through which the film sensitively explores loss, legacy and food.
7 Four Lions (2010)
The concept for this British comedy seems to spell disaster. Four Lions is a black comedy about four homegrown Jihadist terrorists as they attempt to carry out a bombing. The film could easily veer into atrociously bad taste and fall flat. However, thanks to a deft script co-written by Succession creator Jesse Armstrong, Four Lions is a wickedly funny, complex and surprisingly heartfelt satire that powerfully skewers extremism. The low-budget film was partially crowdfunded after numerous investors rejected the project as “career suicide” (via Vice).
6 Cold Pursuit (2019)
Fans of the Norwegian action thriller In Order of Disappearance, which sees a snowplow driver seek revenge against the drug dealers who killed his son, were likely nervous to learn that the film would be receiving an American remake. The American version refitted the film with a less clever title, Cold Pursuit, and cast Liam Neeson in B-movie action star mode to play the title role. Nevertheless, the remake is surprisingly strong. Cold Pursuit keeps the original film’s director, allowing much of the offbeat Nordic humor to remain intact. Moreover, Neeson, who only needs a strong script to deliver a great performance, shines as the grieving, vengeful father.
5 21 Jump Street (2012)
For those aware of its history, the 21 Jump Street movie’s concept might present a dire image of the state of Hollywood’s originality. A big-budget comedy remake of a largely forgotten 1980s crime procedural series certainly paints the image of an industry running out of ideas. As it happens, the film is one of the funniest comedies of the 2010s, with a sharp screenplay that mines considerable humor out of self-aware jokes poking fun at the unoriginality of its premise. The untested duo of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum proves brilliant, as does the film’s directing duo, Lord and Miller, who make their live-action directorial debut.
4 Locke (2013)
The premise of Locke is profoundly un-cinematic. A man drives down a highway while speaking on the phone to numerous people for 85 minutes; it sounds like a dull affair, but the masterful screenplay from Peaky Blinders’ creator Stephen Knight is anything but. The film delivers a tense, engrossing character study in which a man of conviction stands by what he believes while struggling to keep his entire life from collapsing around him. It’s a film bolstered by an impressive voice cast of supporting characters and carried by Tom Hardy, whose performance makes Locke one of Hardy’s best films.
3 John Wick (2014)
While it’s hard to divorce the notion of John Wick from the juggernaut blockbuster franchise it has become, the original film’s concept does it no favors. On a fundamental level, John Wick’s plot of an assassin who comes out of retirement to take revenge on those who killed his dog is indistinguishable from the standard story of a straight-to-DVD action B-movie. The reasons John Wick works can’t be articulated in its premise; the film thrives off the execution of its well-choreographed action, the sense of cool delivered by its polished direction and the quiet charisma of Keanu Reeves.
2 American Psycho (2000)
Before the 2000 film adaptation from co-writer/director Mary Harron, American Psycho had garnered a justifiable reputation as an unfilmable book. The novel follows a narcissistic investment banker who also happens to be a murderous psychopath. It achieves a numbing effect through a “plot” which mostly boils down to a sequence of graphic murders, graphic sex scenes and lengthy diatribes about pop music, all told with the same unnerving objectivity. Somehow, Harron manages to maintain the plot and spirit of the book, while transforming the novel into a coherent story suited to the new medium. She is, of course, aided by a powerhouse performance from Christian Bale in the lead role.
1 Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl (2003)
Pirates of The Caribbean: Curse of The Black Pearl is an earnest, multimillion dollar action movie based on a 10-minute theme park ride. However, the simple concept materializes as a strength in the final film; with so little to go on as “source material”, the talented creative team were free to pursue their own ideas for a compelling pirate adventure, as long as they maintained the visual language of the ride. The result is executed with obvious passion and care from all involved, delivering not just the best film in the Pirates franchise, but simply a great movie, full-stop.