"I believe that we are solely responsible for our choices, and we have to accept the consequences of every deed, word and thought throughout our lifetime."
The first time that the idea of an American remake or re-imagining of the 2003 Korean film Oldboy was floated, it was to star Will Smith and be directed by Steven Spielberg. Once the notion of something as heinous as that film was sure to have been settles in, you find yourself much more open to the notion of someone, anyone else doing the American version. Therefore the announcement that Spike Lee would direct the film with Josh Brolin in the lead role was greeted with much more anticipation than would have been otherwise reserved for such a film. So could Spike Lee's version stand on its own two feet without the specter of the original looming large above it? Read on to find out...
Joe Doucett (Brolin) is a nasty bastard working in the advertising industry circa 1993. We know he's nasty because he hits on his client's wives and tells his ex-wife that he's not coming to his daughter's third birthday party because she wouldn't remember if he showed up or not. After a drunken bender one night, Joe wakes up in a strange hotel room that he cannot leave. No reason is given for his imprisonment, but a news broadcast on the television in his room shows that he has been framed for the murder of his ex-wife. The only thing that keeps him going is the hope that he may one day escape and reconcile with his now orphaned daughter.
Twenty years pass, and in the midst of an attempt escape, Joe is drugged and wakes up in a steamer trunk in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a pillowcase full of letters he wrote to his daughter and several thousand dollars in cash. Joe sets out to find out who imprisoned him and why, teaming with an old friend (Michael Imperioli) and a nurse (Elizabeth Olson) who is sympathetic to his plight due to her work with an organization that seeks to clear the names of innocent people convicted of crimes.
I'm giving a warning ahead of time that I will be dealing with slight spoilers in my review, and though I won't reveal the major twists of the film's final half hour, anyone wanting to go in fresh to this film would be wise to skip the next two paragraphs that follow this one. The original film Oldboy is itself based on a manga which I have not read, so I cannot say whether this film is more or less faithful to it than the Korean version. What I can say is that this version of Oldboy is not the disaster I thought it could have turned out to be, and I rather liked it for many reasons. The first of which is that it's just a flat-out crazy film that doesn't have a Hollywood gloss all over it. Quite a lot of American remakes of foreign films have a veneer of safety built into them that allows the audience to feel safe in the knowledge that a lot of the more "foreign" concepts that make films like Oldboy a success in their native countries will be white washed to a certain extent when translated for American audiences.
This film felt like the right balance of homage and originality, and didn't kowtow to fans expecting a shot for shot remake, but also didn't change its identity so much as to make it unrecognizable to fans of the original. Gone are the octopus and the tongue cutting, but they are referenced in the film. There is an odd addition to the villain's backstory that frankly made very little sense to me, but didn't distract me so much that it made me dislike what they did. The changes and references went hand in hand in service of the overall story, making it a much more edifying film than say this year's awful Evil Dead remake that couldn't make up its mind whether it wanted to honor the original or have its way with its defiled corpse.
And as for the aforementioned villain in this film, Sharlto Copley's characterization was hands down my favorite thing about this version of the film. The bold and often bug nuts choices he made on how to play this character made me enjoy the film more than I would have otherwise. It's refreshing in this day and age to have an actor that's so dedicated to playing thoroughly insane characters with little thought of vanity or self-image (also see his crazy performance in Elysium for another example of this), and I absolutely loved everything he brought to the table. It will not play as well for everyone as it did for me, and I can see some audience members, and certainly fans of the original, finding a ton of faults in what he does, but for me, his performance worked like gangbusters.
As for the rest of the cast, Josh Brolin is good, if not great, in the lead role. He's an actor that can play a morally dubious character like this and make him still work as the hero. He goes full blast into the role, and it pays off for the most part, though he's likely a bit too stoic to win over the unconverted. Elizabeth Olson is fine in a largely thankless role, and does the most she can, though her motives for helping Joe are muddy at best and contrived at worst when you remove a key element from the original that American audiences would have likely scoffed at. It's also nice to see Samuel L. Jackson back in a Spike Lee film (their last collaboration was Jungle Fever more than twenty years ago) and he does his usual Sam Jackson schtick in this film which you either like or you don't.
The film's script by Mark Protosevich is smart without being clever, and has some nice flourishes, though I'm not sure what was in his script, and what was brought to the film by Lee. As for Lee, he does an impressive job of keeping the action moving (though the jarring cut before the big centerpiece action sequence of the film is inexplicable). He also does a fantastic job of showing and not telling with the flashback sequences, which is a welcome addition since the film's final half hour requires a ton of explanation. It's solid work that falls squarely in the middle, not his best, but certainly not his worst.
My biggest gripe with Spike Lee's Oldboy is that it's almost too foreign of a story to work in an American film. It retains enough of the original's spirit to appease the fans, but it's concepts and storyline are almost so Eastern-centric that they don't translate well to Western sensibilities. It's not a bad film, but anyone unfamiliar with the original is going to be thrown by how violent, nasty and taboo it is, and it's likely the reason the film has had an impossible time finding an audience. It's the rare film that will work best for people who are fans of the original, yet those are the exact people who won't hold it in as high esteem as its predecessor. It's a truly strange film.
[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]