Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Oldboy (2013)

Directed by Spike Lee.
2013. Rated R, 104 minutes.
Josh Brolin
Elizabeth Olsen
Samuel L. Jackson
Sharlto Copley
Michael Imperioli
James Ransone
Max Casella
Linda Emond
Grey Damon
Pom Klementieff
Lance Reddick
Hannah Ware

Joe Ducett (Brolin) is an ad exec whose alcoholism has reached critical levels. We meet him as he absolutely ruins a meeting with a potential client. Next thing he knows, he wakes up in a room with a television, but no windows, and a door he cannot get out of. He has no idea how he got there, who put him there, or why. Eventually, and by eventually I mean after twenty years, he's let go with no explanation whatsoever. If this sounds familiar to you, it's because this is the American remake of South Korean director Park Chan-wook's "Oldboy," itself based on a Japanese manga of the same name.

For me, the problems with this movie start immediately, and they are also two-fold and grow into a bigger one. The first part of the issue is, of course, the original. In my eyes, Park Chan-wook's version is more than deserving of its classic status. It's pretty much perfect. Any remake of it is bound to pale in comparison unless it were of undeniable greatness. The second issue is that I also happen to be a huge fan of this version's director, Spike Lee. As far as I'm concerned, he has a trio of masterpieces of his own. Do the Right Thing is the one he's most known for. I personally place Malcolm X and the far under seen and under-appreciated Bamboozled in that category. Unfortunately, that means I'm really familiar with his style of story-telling. One of my favorite directors remaking one of my favorite movies sounds like something that should make me ecstatic. However, in my head the two didn't seem like a good fit. This is the bigger problem that grows out of the other two. This is the bias with which I come into Spike's Oldboy.

Trying my best to put all that stuff out of my mind as I watch, I take notice of something that absolutely does work. That is the performance of Josh Brolin. I think he's an amazing actor and is again sensational. He gives us a protagonist that, early on, is an unrepentant drunk and he sells it completely. As the movie progresses, he is desperate to find his captor and will stop at nothing to do so. Brolin sells this also. If there is one area where this movie is at least on par with the original, it's in the portrayal of our hero. The one area where this movie exceeds its predecessor is in the performance and development of the female helper he acquires, here named Marie. The wonderful Elizabeth Olsen tackles the role and excels as she has in everything I've seen her in. Her character is more of a take-charge type as opposed to her Korean counterpart and it works very well. A guy whose been out of the swing of things for twenty years is going to need some help and it makes sense that he would cling to the first person who shows him some kindness.

There are some really good ideas trotted out, here. Most of these come in the area of character development. This is the same tactic Martin Scorcese uses in The Departed, his remake of Infernal Affairs. It gave Scorsese's film an emotional depth that the original didn't have. Therefore, it's a wise choice by Lee to focus his efforts on that front. The error he commits, however, is that the characters themselves are too flat to carry the extra load. For instance, Samuel L. Jackson plays someone who was barely in the original. This is can be a good thing provided the person is interesting. Here, the actor is interesting, but the character is not. He's merely Samuel L. Jackson in loud-mouth, cackling, mf'ing bad guy mode. It's a role he performs well, but it's nothing we haven't seen before. As our main villain, Sharlto Copley is given a female companion and has more added to his backstory. However, his portrayal of the character is on the bizarre side. Using the word bizarre to describe anything in this movie needs further context because the plot itself is inherently strange. Bizarre, with regards to Copley's performance, should be viewed in a negative light. Where Jackson's barking, as blatantly over the top as he is, feels organic to  both him and the character, Copley's line readings feel natural to neither. It's a case of being able to see the actor acting. This detracts from his potentially interesting motivations.

For those of us who have seen both, we must boil this movie down to a comparison with the original. I know, I've been doing that all along. Still, it's the reason that the remake gets off on the wrong foot. One of the first things this version does is truncate the imprisonment part of the story. This is the part that captivates us early in the original. We not only learn of our hero's plight, but really empathize with him because we really feel the wear of fifteen years (instead of twenty as it is here). in solitary confinement. Having him narrate also helps us get to that point. We get right inside his head and watch his focus change and even his sanity slipping. This version ditches the narration doesn't quite accomplish this, leaving us a bit cold toward him as he transitions to the revenge portion of things.

The difference in the looks of the two films might be an issue for some as well. In the original, Chan Wook employs his signature style of having his films framed traditionally, but so elegantly they appear to be a collection of beautiful still shots. The one exception being the scrolling single take of the famous hammer fight. Throughout his career, Spike Lee has often mixed and matched how his shots are framed. Many of them try to bring the viewer into the picture as much as possible. Others work to suggest the directors opinion on what is happening within them. He goes the same route most of the time, but at others he tries to ape Chan Wook and the results are usually less than thrilling. However, I will say he had some success with the hammer fight by sticking closely to what his Korean counterpart did and even adding a level by having his hero literally switch floors during the battle yet keeping it one continuous take.

No matter what you think of the first two thirds of Spike's Oldboy, it's a movie that will sink or swim based on how it chooses to wrap up this tale. For those of us who know, and love, the original the remake sinks, big time. It starts its descent by altering the villain's motivations. As twisted as it might seem, it still feels watered down for American consumption. Any doubt that this is the case is removed by the final scene. Instead of being disturbed and replaying what happened repeatedly in our head in an effort to analyze it from as many different angles as possible, we just shrug our shoulders and agree that's what we would've done. Sure, the protagonist goes through an incredible ordeal, but he comes out of it with his senses intact. We can't say that about the Korean version. That one worms its way into our brains and sits there. Making this one more palatable also makes it easier to forget. That, ultimately, is this film's most critical issue. When it ends, we can easily dismiss it, regardless of whether we've seen the original or not.

In fairness to Lee, this may not be all his fault. He famously fought with the producers of the film who took it upon themselves to re-edit the film from nearly two and a half hours down to its current length more than thirty minutes left. Both the director and star Josh Brolin have come out in favor of the Lee's longer version. Lee himself decided not to note this as a "Spike Lee joint" during the opening credits, distancing himself as much as possible. Fingers crossed the director's cut sees the light of day at some point.


  1. I hated this version. Brolin made his character so unlikable that I really didn't give a damn what happened to him. I felt like they tried too hard to one up the original too, especially with the reveal at the end with Copley's character.

    1. Yeah, they totally botched the ending. Lots of stuff happens but none of it has any impact.

  2. Good review Dell. It was an okay remake. Not terrible, but not good either. Just fine. I guess.

    1. Not terrible, but not good either pretty much sums it up. Thanks, Dan.