Overview: A man is inexplicably imprisoned for 20 years in a hotel room and then released to determine the identity of his captor. FilmDistrict; 2013; Rated R; 104 minutes.
A Note Regarding Remakes: Film is a complex language, an assembly of multiple vocabularies. I always thought it was unfair to dismiss American remakes of foreign films and elitist to condescend to viewers who have an aversion to foreign film. Watching a movie in an unfamiliar language limits your experience; you lose elements of vocal inflection, emphasis, timing, and other culture-specific signifiers. Having to track the textual dialogue on the bottom of the screen interrupts the viewer’s relationship with the framing and filming and blocks the message sent by the performers’ facial expressions. All of these things are imperative to a full film experience, and watching a film in a foreign language might remove 10-50 percent of that experience. Spike Lee’s remake of The Great Park Chan Wook film was quickly and unjustly dismissed by many. But being a remake doesn’t immediately make it a disappointing film (it actually improves on the original in some areas). The new version of Oldboy earns its status as a disappointing film on its own merit.
Wait, Did You Say Improvement?: I did, and I’m standing by this part. Perhaps for the reasons I mentioned above, I was much more engaged by Josh Brolin’s intensely unhinged performance. Joe Doucett, Brolin’s version of the captive lead man, is searing in his obsessiveness. His anguish, his anger, his confusion are all more clearly illustrated than predecessor Dae-su Oh. Further, the montage presentation of Joe’s capture has a more poignantly devastating impact, a more concise definition of just how long his solitary confinement lasts.
The Equal Parts: Though the role is strained here by poor writing and direction, Elizabeth Olsen shows more great promise in an increasingly impressive resume. The iconic fight sequences pursue a different aesthetic, with much more typical over-the-top American-ness, and for some, including me, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The Failures: Lee’s inclusion of a fake interview show displayed during Joe’s captivity is destructively stupid, deflating any sense of believability within a plot that already requires huge leaps of faith. Samuel L. Jackson gives a cartoonish depiction of the kidnap business owner, and Sharlto Copley is flatly awful in his role as the scorned former schoolmate pulling the strings. The camerawork has moments of excellence (I really liked the stairwell fight scene) and face-first pratfalls (the flashback sequences and Joe’s early drunken stupor are very poorly presented). Lee also never comes close to touching the primal, obsessive, and ultimately destructive desire for vengeance that consumes the lives of the characters in Chan Wook’s trilogy.
Overall: When pulled out from the shadow of its source material, Spike Lee’s remake of Oldboy isn’t terrible, but it certainly isn’t worth revisiting.