Monday, 24 March 2014

[Review] Oldboy (2013)

This Review was originally posted over at on 13-03-14 by yours truly.

Spike Lee’s Oldboy is a perfect example of a worthless remake. As a retelling of its Korean counterpart, it's a flaccid pale imitation. Judging it as a film on its own terms? It’s a hot mess filled with flat direction, terrible performances and numerous gaping plot holes. Spike Lee brings nothing of interest and instead, simply treads familiar territory in a lesser fashion. Fans of the original will be annoyed to no ends while newcomers will be bamboozled.

Josh Brolin takes on the anti-hero visage as Joe Doucett, a slimy advertising executive who mistreats his ex-wife and neglects his three-year-old daughter. Late one night during a drunken stupor he is abducted for reasons unknown. He awakens the next morning to find himself in what appears to be a cheap dingy hotel room. Here he is held captive for the next twenty years, reduced to an animalistic nature as thoughts of vengeance consume his mind. At the twenty-year mark, Joe is then unleashed back into the real world. Challenged by his captor to find the answers as to why he was held captive for 20 years.

Spike Lee has claimed that his film is a reinterpretation of the manga. Although in actual fact, these claims are nothing more than fabrication. By its own admission in the opening credits, the film is based on the Korean film and not the manga. Screenwriter Mark Protosevich simply treads familiar ground with minimum alteration.

The first two acts are a beat for beat retelling. The third act, on the other hand, has been severely altered and butchered in the process. Key motivations for the antagonist have been changed for the worst. These alterations play host to numerous gaping contrivances and plot holes. Meanwhile, the very conclusion has been completely robbed of all gravitas. Strangely enough, while the unsettling themes have been distilled, the violence and shock factor is ramped up to ludicrous cartoon-like levels. A hammer is violently smashed into the cranium of an unsuspecting thug; salt is literally poured into wounds. Yet it’s all a little toothless as it ramps up the 'shock value' just for the sake of it.

Some of the key performances are woeful to say the least. Sharlto Copley is cast as Joe’s captor. Although for reasons unknown, Copley plays the role in an overly camp fashion. He plays the character as a Bond villain caricature one step shy of twirling his moustache and stroking a white cat. It's a performance very deserving of a "Razzie". Samuel L Jackson also shows up briefly as the prison warden phoning in his trademarked “Bad Ass Mofo” routine. On a positive note, Elizabeth Olsen turns in commendable work, even if the script gives her little to do in return.

In order for the narrative to truly engage we need a captivating protagonist to follow into the depths of hell. Brolin tries his best, but Joe is written to be less sympathetic from the outset. The central idea has been reversed. In Park’s film, Oh-Dae Su begins as a flawed yet likeable man locked away and transformed into a “Monster”, of sorts. The difference here is that Joe is already a “Monster” going into the prison. Joe is then unleashed in order to find his redemption. The hint is telling in the namesake of both protagonist and antagonist. Joe Doucett and Adrian Pryce: one must pay the price for being a douche. Unfortunately, the film fails to explore these ideas in a meaningful way, as Joe willingly cracks skulls in a sociopathic manner. 

Spike Lee opts for grounded realism over grandeur theatrics. But removing the grandeur proves to be a vital mistake. Without the grandeur, the narrative loses a good deal of its mood and atmosphere. The grounded reality backfires and serves only to expose the weakness of plot. Not to mention that it is a flat and uninspired film to look at, despite being lensed by 12 Years a Slave cinematographer Sean Bobbitt.

The material isn’t a good fit for Spike Lee. He struggles to create any sort of mood. He attempts to recreate numerous iconic scenes, stand out scenes such as the corridor hammer fight, whilst putting a minor spin on them. Unfortunately, it screams of going through the motions in lieu of a paycheck. The lack of grandeur hurts proceedings. Any sense of creeping dread or tension is completely lost. The mystery never takes off or engages. The final revelatory moments are relegated to a punchline as opposed to a visceral gut punch. The very ending goes out with a whimper as opposed to a bang. It’s too hollow for its own good.

Park Chan-Wook’s original film wasn’t flawless by any means. But it was a damn near perfect piece of genre cinema, one that will be remembered and revered. Spike Lee’s version, on the other hand, is left to join the ranks of other terrible Korean-American remakes, in amongst the likes of The Uninvited and My Sassy Girl.

If you make a movie like Oldboy and you make it extremely well the first time around, then you'd better do something special with the remake to justify it. Therein lays the problem. Spike Lee fails to step up and do anything of interest with it. Perhaps Spike Lee should do the right thing next time.

-Daniel M



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