TUCSON, Ariz. — Living up to the legendary 1961 "West Side Story" is a towering task, but director Steven Spielberg steps into the challenge with fearless vigor with his remake.
Making a valiant effort to modernize the bizarre ballet, Spielberg chooses staging and choreography that's more convincing than the twirly-whirly original. The fight scenes, in particular, are worlds more convincing than the punches that miss by a mile in the original.
This new "West Side Story" is more grounded and relevant.
Spielberg, using shot selection that drives home the dilapidated sense of place, chooses to emphasize the racism that colors the interactions of every character in the film. He softens some other rough edges in the original, including a scene of implied rape.
Ansel Elgort is Tony, the leader of the all-white Jets gang that competes with the Puerto Rican Jets for territory.
He falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), the sister of Shark leader Bernardo (David Alveraz). For "West Side Story" to soar, the leads need to be considerably talented and charismatic, and the magnetic Elgort and Zegler live up to the demands. Also making a significant impact is Mike Faist as Riff, the rabble-rousing Jet whose hardscrabble realpolitik dictates the flow of the plot.
Spielberg embraces the fatalistic, Shakespearean echoes of the story, driving home the impact of a world too divided to allow forbidden romance to thrive.
The problems the film runs into are inherent in the story's DNA. Many of the plot developments are too ludicrous and silly to be taken seriously, and it's always a jarring disconnect when gang members break out in finger-snapping song-and-dance numbers. The jarring nature of those scenes will always make "West Side Story" unintentionally funny.
But just as in previous renditions of "West Side Story," the film rises in those iconic musical numbers. "America" and "Tonight" are particularly breathtaking.
Masterfully staged, shot and edited, the new "West Side Story" is a sizable improvement over the beloved original. It won't replace the 1961 film in the hearts of those who have adored it over the decades, but it's a worthy, fresh take on the material that stands up well on its own.
RATING: 3 stars out of 4
Viewed Thursday at Harkins Arizona Pavilions.