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Does it really take two?

ONE is called Gambit and stars Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine as a cat burglar and a dancer involved in an art con.

The other is called Gambit and has curator Colin Firth and rodeo queen/chicken factory worker Cameron Diaz involved in an art con. In both cases the lead character is called Harry Deane. Spot the difference?

Michael Hoffman, the director of the new Gambit, as opposed to the old one starring Caine-MacLaine and released in 1966, can.

"I'm not familiar with the original film, and all that the two have in common is that both films are about a man with a plan," he says.

Colin Firth, too, is keen to point out the differences between the 1966 Gambit and the 2012 one, which has a script by the Coen brothers.

"There is a uniqueness to it harking back to another era," says Firth, "but not necessarily that of the original film. The conceit of the Coens' script is similar, but the whole flavour and the characters are different."

There is one clear connection with the original Gambit in that the producer of the new Gambit, Mike Lobell, went to its London premiere in 1966. It was Lobell who continued to champion the film as various directors and actors became attached then unattached to the project. You can see the result for yourself when the film, which also stars Tom Courtenay, Alan Rickman and Stanley Tucci, is released next week.

Regardless of whether the new Gambit is a successful gamble or not, remakes will continue to be a sticky area for cinema. It is a basic instinct on the part of the paying public not to want to shell out for something they have seen before. It's for that reason that the R word, "remake", is often regarded as a bad word by audiences keen to see something new.

Yet if some remakes should be convicted for crimes against the original, others give the practice a good name. Would anyone dismiss The Magnificent Seven as third-rate because it stemmed from Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai? Or say that John Huston should not have taken on The Maltese Falcon because it had been done before?

There are remakes, it seems, and there are remakes. And there are those who won't even use the word, preferring reboot or re-imagining instead. JJ Abrams' 2009 Star Trek was widely billed as a reboot. It took the franchise's main idea, space travel, and characters, and took them back to the beginning of the story when the crew were all greenhorns. It was fresh and original, but didn't it essentially stem from, or draw upon, all the other Star Trek films?

Ephraim Katz, in The Film Encyclopaedia, brooks no nonsense on what a remake is. He defines it simply as: "A newer version of a motion picture that had been filmed before". As an example, he cites 1962's Mutiny on the Bounty as a remake of the 1935 picture starring Clark Gable.

The definition may be small and neat but the remake tent remains a big one. It contains directors as celebrated as Hitchcock (who remade his own 1934 film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, in 1956) and Scorsese (The Departed – for which the Taxi Driver and Goodfellas director won his first and only Oscar to date – was a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs).

The tent also houses American remakes of foreign films, some superior to the original, others less so. Susanne Bier's Danish Brothers became Jim Sheridan's Brothers; Norway's 1997 Insomnia with Stellan Skarsgard morphed into Christopher Nolan's 2002 hit with Al Pacino. Ditto Let the Right One In/Let Me In; the first Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/David Fincher's version; and Abre Los Ojos/Vanilla Sky. Sometimes the traffic goes the other way, as in Jacques Audiard turning the New York-set Fingers, with Harvey Keitel, into the very cool, irresistibly French The Beat That My Heart Skipped with Romain Duris.

In another quarter of this big tent are the remake turkeys, which take any charm or originality the original had and surgically remove them. Do the walk of shame Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, the Coen brothers' The Ladykillers, Sly Stallone's Get Carter, Nic Cage's The Wicker Man, Jude Law's Alfie, and others too numerous to mention and depressing to recall.

Then there are the remakes that take the task as literally as possible, as in Gus Van Sant's pointless, shot-for-shot do-over of Psycho, and Michael Haneke's reshooting of Funny Games for English-speaking audiences. Haneke's 2007 film is almost exactly the same as the 1997 one, minus those irritating subtitles.

The remake tent is a substantial structure, then, but a certain order exists within. At the top table are those remakes that are generally held not just to be as good as the original, but better. Take Oceans 11, for example. When you look at the original film today, with its cast of Rat Pack stars, it comes across as dated and sexist. Soderbergh's remakes, in contrast, were ultra-modern, sexy and cool. The first Cape Fear had Robert Mitchum chilling the blood as Max Cady, the second had Robert De Niro distributing the stuff of nightmares. Which was better?

A lot to argue about, so to keep the heated debate going here is The Herald's selection of remakes, which we've put into the categories of The Good, The Bad, and Jury Still Out.

1. Fame

In 1980 Alan Parker showed that fame really did cost, and right on the screen was where his band of talented but troubled misfits started paying. After dilution into a still pretty decent television show, Fame unwisely came back for another curtain call in 2009. This time, it made The X Factor look hard-hitting.

Verdict: Ugly.

2. King Kong

The 1933 original might have been black and white and hand-knitted in comparison with what came later, but it was packed with thrills – that first sound and sight of Kong especially. Still, Peter Jackson's 2005 remake had stunning special effects, allowing the viewer the chance to look deep into Kong's eyes and soul.

Verdict: Jury still out.

3. True Grit

John Wayne's True Grit was beloved in its time, and is still a favourite western of many, but the Coen brothers' version took the tale back to the original book and put the focus on young Mattie Ross. That she was played in the 2010 version by the outstanding and Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld marks this remake out as special.

Verdict: Good

4. Arthur

The first had cuddly Dudley Moore as the eccentric and sozzled millionaire, while the remake had telephone prankster Russell Brand on laugh-free form. Not even the presence of Helen Mirren and Jennifer Garner in the remake could stop Arthur being a 24-carat flop.

Verdict: Ugly

5. Scarface

Like True Grit, this is another tough call. Does one go for vintage Scarface, Howard Hawks's 1932 classic starring George Raft and Paul Muni, or the similarly classic 1983 film with Al Pacino? Chicago and booze or Miami and cocaine? Old-school black-and-white menace or gloriously over-the-top colour?

Verdict: Phone a little friend.

Gambit opens on November 21.

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