Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Oldboy (2013)

Oldboy (2013)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Mark Protosevich based on the manga by Garon Tsuchiya & Nobuaki Minegishi.
Starring: Josh Brolin (Joe Doucett), Elizabeth Olsen (Marie Sebastian), Sharlto Copley (Adrian / The Stranger), Samuel L. Jackson (Chaney), Michael Imperioli (Chucky), Pom Klementieff (Haeng-Bok), James Ransone (Dr. Tom Melby), Max Casella (James Prestley), Linda Emond (Edwina Burke), Elvis Nolasco (Cortez), Rami Malek (Browning), Lance Reddick (Daniel Newcombe), Hannah Ware (Donna Hawthorne), Richard Portnow (Bernie Sharkey), Hannah Simone (Stephanie Lee).
I have to admit that I am somewhat at a loss as to why Spike Lee’s remake of Oldboy doesn’t work as well it should. On the surface, I like much of the movie. Lee accepts the challenge of remaking a film that was already very bold, very stylized, is smart enough to know the stylistic tricks he cannot top, so he keeps them, but raises the level on some of the others. Most of the changes made to the narrative are small, but are quite smart. Josh Brolin is very good in the lead role. And yet, when taken as a whole, the film just seems kind of, what? Not bland per se, but just that while everyone has clearly put a lot work into it, there wasn’t necessarily a lot of passion. Even some of Lee’s films that are worse that Oldboy are still very clearly his films – their failures are his failures. But Oldboy feels strange impersonal – and Lee isn’t very good at faking it.
The film is a remake of Korean director Chan-wook Park’s 2003 film of the same name (spoilers for both films will be throughout the rest of the review, but come on, you’ve had 15 years). In that film, a man is kidnapped off the street, and held in what looks like a hotel room for 15 years, with no contact with the outside world, just a TV he cannot control, and is fed the same dumplings every day. After being in jail all that time, he is released – and is obsessed with figuring out who put him away and why. He meets a young woman who helps him. And then, the villain makes himself - and eventually – his reasons known. And it becomes clear that releasing the man from prison wasn’t the end of his torment.
Lee’s film basically follows the same plot. Lee does spend more time with his protagonist – Joe Doucett (Brolin) – before he is kidnapped and imprisoned, driving home the point of just what a terrible person he was., He is a drunk, who barely seems to care about his 3-year-old daughter, who he blows off her birthday party to attend an important business dinner – that he proceeds to blow to offending the man he is trying to impress. He stumbles around drunk until he’s just – poof – gone. Waking up in the prison, he slowly starts to go mad. He sees the news on the TV that his ex-wife was raped and murdered – and there is an open and shut case against him. Throughout the years, he’ll get updates on his daughter through the crime shows that keep exploring the murder. Eventually, he starts writing undeliverable notes to his daughter – and is determined to make right when he gets out. He also trains, turning himself into a muscular fighter. Lee keeps him inside longer than the first film – 20 years this time – but he is released pretty much the same way. The young woman he meets is a nurse, Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen) – who doesn’t know what this strange man is up to, but cannot help but try and help. And then, Adrian (Sharlto Copley) appears.
As a visual experience, Lee’s Oldboy is impressive right from the start – but there are two sequences in particular where he outdoes himself. The original film has an extended fight sequence between the main character and a bunch of goons – all in a hallway, seen from the side in one long take. Lee takes this sequence to another level – literally – by staging the scene on a ramp. This raises the difficultly level of the shot, but Lee and company pull it off spectacularly. Another sequence, late in the film, where Adrian flashes back to the worse moment in his life, the real reason why everything happens, is another long take of bloody violence – and again Lee makes it look effortless. The film is full of shots and moments that work wonderfully – a slow pan out when the big secret is revealed for example, is a brilliant example of showmanship by Lee. No matter what I think about the film, it’s clear Lee is bringing his A-game, technically, speaking to the film.
I also like, for the most part, the changes Lee and company make to the narrative of the film. I was worried, obviously, that any Hollywood version of the story would soften it somewhat – that they would take the edge off the story, and slink away from the shocking moments. Lee doesn’t do that in the least. He does change the ending of the film – not the reveal, but what the main character decides to do after the reveal. It’s a more selfless act on his part than what the character in the original does.
Lee doesn’t solve some of the problems with the original film though – the most problematic being the character of Marie. In both versions of the film, she is more a screenwriter’s idea than a character – who behaves in ways that don’t make a lot of sense, because the plot requires her to do so. Because Elizabeth Olsen is a fine actress, she is able to paper over some of those flaws, but her biggest act – the one the whole movie hinges on really – makes no sense given everything we know about her character up until then. It doesn’t really work.
The bigger problem here though really is that the whole thing seems impersonal. Lee has always poured himself into his work – even the previous examples where he was little more than a director for hire on a studio genre piece – Inside Man, for example, is every bit a Spike Lee film. Oldboy doesn’t feel like a Lee film. It feels cold and impersonal – that Lee is showing off stylistically, without really caring about the plot or the characters. At 104 minutes, it’s very short for a Spike Lee film – his films are often too long, because he’s trying to cram so much in. That’s preferable to something like this, stripped to the bone, but with a director whose fingerprints have been erased.
I do think that this version of Oldboy is fascinating – it deserved better than being ignored, which is what happened in 2013. It’s makes an interesting companion piece to the original film, has some amazing set pieces, and some weird, interesting performances – Brolin, yes, but also Samuel L. Jackson as the jailer, and Copley as the villain. No, I don’t really think Copley’s performance works – but dammit all if it isn’t one of the most distinctive performances in recent years. Many will hate it, and fair enough. But man, it’s odd. If you are only going to one version of this movie, then yes, see the original. But after that, you should see this one too. Does it work? Not really. But I’ll remember it just the same.

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