December 09, 2013

Spike Lee's OLDBOY Tastes Like Warmed Over Dumplings

"Shit, you might want to think about what you're doing here."
Disclaimer: I'm going to tread really lightly here in terms of spoilers, mostly because this is one of those stories that you can never watch the same way twice.  I'll say up front that I absolutely prefer the original Korean film, but I'd be curious to see how someone reacts to this American version as their first introduction to the story. 

Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is a bugfuck crazy awesome revenge flick that you don't watch so much as experience in extremely lurid detail.  The ending of that film so intensely gut wrenching on every level that it sears itself into your memory. As soon as word spread that there was an American remake looming on the horizon, everyone's initial reaction was, "Well they're definitely gonna punt the ending."  Steven Speilberg attached himself to the project for a few years, and it was such an ill fit of director and material that I never really believed he'd end up making that film. Will Smith's name got tossed around for the lead role and I would have considered that an intriguing possibility if I thought for a single second that Smith would be willing to really go for it an risk sullying his carefully cultivated public persona, a move made increasingly unlikely after he passed on Django Unchained.  But eventually it ended up on Spike Lee's docket and he actually seemed like an exciting choice, someone who'd really bring a unique perspective to the already challenging material and make it his own.

But alas, it was not to be.  In fact, if I didn't know that it was a Spike film before walking in the door, I'd find little evidence to support the claim onscreen.  I'll admit that Joe Doucet's extended captivity is actually pretty engaging; I enjoyed the quick bit when the bellhop poster comes to life and the baby rat thing is a real heartbreaker.  But once Joe is released from his hotel prison, everything goes downhill.  It's grim and lifeless, lacking the manic energy that made Park's film so damn exciting to watch.  Only Sam Jackson seems to understand how to give the material a pulse.  Josh Brolin, who I'm generally a big fan of, is practically on autopilot for much of his time on screen, which stands in stark contrast to the breathtaking transformation that Min-sik Choi undergoes in the original film.  As much as I like Elizabeth Olsen, you can often see the wheels turning as she tries really hard to "act" opposite Brolin, exacerbated by the fact that they have next to no chemistry together.  And then there's Sharlto Copley as the film's villain, a performance that's so extremely mannered and peculiar that it feels like he was spliced in not just from a different movie, but from a entirely different plane of existence.

The only person who comes out of this thing relatively unscathed is screenwriter Mark Protosevich, whose script maintains the teeth of the original film while also making some alterations that sharpen those teeth in places.  I'm glad that he kept the original dumplings instead switching it to something more western friendly like chicken wings.  Characters are constantly showing Brolin how to look stuff up on his smartphone, and while I appreciate the real-world practicality of it, by the time they're Shazaming his ringtone to identify the prep school anthem the film almost starts to feel like an extended commercial for mobile apps.  I think there's a little too much energy spent at the top of the film proving that Joe Doucet is an irredeemable shitheel, as opposed to Oh Dae-su who was simply an irresponsible fool.  It makes a big impact on the respective films' finales - Doucet deserves everything he has coming to him, whereas you kind of pity Dae-su.  I certainly missed the original's memorable moments of deranged brilliance like the squid and the tongue, but I kind of love the change to the villain's backstory, a simple tweak that not only makes Copley's character infinitely creepier, but also makes the final reveal and turnabout on Brolin all the more devastating.  Granted that reveal is pretty awful on the face of it, so we're really only talking about a matter of degrees, but I'm impressed that Protosevich found a way to make his riff on a very memorable ending even more affecting on some level.

Remakes are always a tricky business, especially when you're tackling something as singular as Oldboy.  I think that all too often the inclination is to try and "improve" the original source material in some way, despite the fact that such attempts often end up erasing the thing that everyone likes about the property in the first place.  And as the number of remakes and reboots continues to increase at a seemingly exponential rate, I find myself caring less about whether or not the new version is better or worse than its predecessor, and caring more about whether the remake can bring some new element to the table in order to justify its existence.  There has to be some specific, concrete reason to watch the new version instead of the original.  Simply employing better special effects usually isn't enough, as proven by the recent Carrie remake.  Oldboy proves that simply swapping in English-speaking white folks doesn't get the job done either.  If nothing else, it sticks to the structure of Park's film so closely that I can't bring myself to call it a bad movie - the story is still so weird and fucked up that still connects on a base level.  (However, it should be noted that there's a big red herring in this version that really helps to sell the shock value unless you already know how the film ends, in which case it feels like a boring distraction that perhaps hits the nail a little too much on the head.)

Spike Lee's Oldboy is fine I guess, but it simply doesn't play at nearly the same level as Park Chan-wook's original masterpiece.

Then again, very few films do.

Title: Oldboy
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Michael Imperioli, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Reddick, Rami Malek
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Showcase Revere

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