Spike Lee's new take on 'Oldboy' feels like it could have been - and maybe was - much more
Oldboy Film District
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Mark Protosevich, based on the manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, and a 2003 screenplay by Chan-wook Park, Chun-hyeong Lim and Jo-yun Hwang
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, James Ransone and Pom Klementieff
Rated R / 1 hour, 44 minutes
November 27, 2013
(out of four)
There's an uneasy balance to the way the absolutely mundane coexists with the outlandish in Spike Lee's Oldboy. The sense of bland redundancy that sets in has less to do with the fact that this is a largely faithful remake of Chan-wook Park's decade-old masterpiece, and more to do with the way it's boiled down to the most familiar mechanics of its plot. It's as if the studio's way of dealing with brazenly unsavory material is to rush through it as quickly and mechanically as possible.
But in fact that particular trade-off is not possible at all. The material is what it is, and there's no way around it. Yet the whole endeavor feels rushed, constrained and compromised. Rumors abound of a three-hour version of the film - this one clocks in at just an hour and forty-four minutes - that star Josh Brolin referred to as Lee's director's cut. That's the version I'd like to see, because this one feels like a different movie altogether is wiggling under the surface trying to get out.
Even before the madness of the third act - which includes completely new wrinkles not present in the original - this was a difficult story to try to streamline. It's too strange, too idiosyncratic, too twisted. I mean these adjectives as compliments. But it doesn't feel like Film District and its producers embraced the film's vision enough to let it run wild. Even the new iteration of the original's now-legendary single-shot hallway fight scene has been clipped; Lee's version spans two levels and is an interesting (if overly choreographed and I believe CG-enhanced) take on it, but he admits in interviews it includes a cut (courtesy of the studio) that was not intended. ("Tough business," Lee says.)
For all the bursts of inspiration - both in Lee's filmmaking and in writer Mark Protosevich's reinterpretation of the source material - this Oldboy constantly feels short-changed, as if someone is trying to whittle it all down to nuts and bolts. Granted, the nuts are more bizarre and the bolts more idiosyncratic than any standard studio thriller, but that's what makes the apparent attempt to cut it down to size so vexing. If you're taking on wild material like this, and hiring an auteur like Lee to take it on, why not leave well enough alone?
But I'm getting idealistic again. On to the movie itself. Like its predecessor, Oldboy doesn't seem to think of itself as a revenge thriller, per se; I never thought of the story that way, either. It's actually more like a dark tale of manufactured self-discovery, a grueling journey that begins with a man's sudden capture one drunken, rainy night and comes near its conclusion when, after 20 years of imprisonment, he is released back into society. The key question, as the antagonist in both films states, is not why he was imprisoned, but why he was let go.
Indeed, revenge - as an abstract concept - may be on the mind of Joe Doucett (Brolin) as he chases signs and clues toward his unknown tormentor, but discovering the reasons behind the last 20 years of his life, and what it has all meant, is of far greater importance. A sleazy ad exec in his previous life, Joe makes a list of all the people who might have it out for him. He seeks out his old friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) for help, and finds kindness in the company of Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a nurse and recovering addict. He can't go to the police - no, his captors made sure of that. Upon his initial imprisonment, Joe was framed for the murder of his wife, while his daughter Mia (Violet Hill as an adolescent, Elvy Yost as an adult) was sent away and raised by a foster family.
Eventually the man Joe is hunting reveals himself - quite casually - in the form of a dapper British stranger (Sharlto Copley) who offers to clear Joe's name and pay him handsomely if only he can figure out who the stranger is, and why he held Joe in that small, windowless hotel room for two decades, forced to eat the same fried dumplings and watch the same few channels every single day.
The film's villain, rather than serving as the enigmatic, charismatic, all-knowing figure he was in Park's original (played by Ji-tae Yu), is something of a sore thumb this time thanks to Copley's baffling interpretation of the character. He seems like he's doing some ironic Bond villain, right down to his affected British accent. The hair and makeup department should have given him a mustache to twirl.
At its least intrusive, the performance just comes across as silly; at its worst, it detracts from the weight of the film's late revelations. The rest of the acting is strong; Brolin can embody both the character's weary suffering and formidable physical presence, Olsen is unteachably naturalistic as always, and Samuel L. Jackson - as the purveyor of the complex who houses captives such as Joe - is Samuel L. Jackson.
But what should be a grueling journey feels instead like a mad dash toward the finish line. Most interesting are the film's incisive details sprinkled throughout - most notably the visage of a smiling, African-American bellhop on a "Welcome!" poster in Joe's room, a source of painful mockery and a comment on the movie's themes of subservience, oppression and privilege.
But the nuances Lee seems to want to bring to the material are too often glossed over - or, for all we know, largely discarded during the studio's editing process. The failure of this Oldboy doesn't prove anyone's preconceived sentiment that a remake was a bad idea in the first place, though I'm sure it will be seen that way. I was one of the people who always thought it was a bad idea, though the number of times I've seen the original (which was at the top of my top-10 list in 2005) may make it harder for me to judge. The mooted Steven Spielberg/Will Smith version seemed like a watered-down disaster waiting to happen. But Lee's involvement was the first thing that actually sparked my interest in a remake - and in fits and starts, his version forges a true identity of its own. But otherwise it languishes inside a streamlined template that does neither the story, nor Lee's filmmaking, any favors.