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Sometimes it’s really hard to have hope when writing about movies.  As an optimistic pessimist, I hope for the best and plan for the worst.  In the case of Spike Lee’s remake of the most famous Korean film ever made, Oldboy, I actually let go of planning for the worst.  Having discovered in my interviews with original Oldboy director, Park Chan-wook, and star, Choi Min-sik that they were fine with the film being remade, gave the green light to wish for something positive for this new incarnation.  I went into it with a more open mind than my love of the 2003 film would normally allow.  I really tried, but man, Spike, did you let me down.

Joe Doucett is a jerk; there’s no other word for it.  The full-time drunk doesn’t allow his high stakes job to get in the way of his imbibing or carousing.  Joe’s ex-wife shrieks at him over his absentee-fathering of their small daughter.  He can’t contain his lecherous instincts long enough to keep from making a disgusting pass at the wife of a make-or-break client mere milliseconds after the man excuses himself to use the gents.  Quite unfathomably, Joe actually has a friend, who, naturally, is a bartender that Joe visits after his cataclysmic failure.  Little does Joe realise that it’s the last bar he’ll see for a very long time. 

After working his charms on a seductive young miss outside the pub, the seedy hotel room that welcomes Joe’s eyes after a groggy sleep isn’t a particular surprise.  It’s the lack of a phone or windows in the room and the apparent inability to exit that begins a sinking feeling.  No matter how Joe screams, or beats on the doors and walls, nothing avails a response.  The only proof that he is not actually alone in the world is the daily tray of Chinese take-away dumplings and bottle of booze that is slid through a slot in the door.  Anytime sheets need to be changed, or his mysterious keepers need something from Joe - some DNA, perhaps - knockout gas is emitted from the vents.  Joe’s only distraction is the room’s television set, which provides his only entertainment, information and sexual release (Though this could also be achieved staring at the photo of the grinning bellhop framed on the wall.).  It is via a reality show that Joe realises he’s wanted for the grisly murder of his ex-wife; a crime he’s pretty sure he didn’t commit having been locked away for some time.  He also follows the show for news of his daughter, who is summarily adopted.  Watching her progress on this strangely Doucett-obsessed show, Joe vows to make himself over; to get fit and wait for the opportunity to escape, reclaim his life and his daughter and punish his captors – as soon as he can figure out who they are.  

Twenty years after awakening in the nasty room, one day, just as unexpectedly as he was captured, Joe is set free.  He’s placed back into the world with just enough mod cons and provisions to make his way through the town.  Displaced and disoriented after the passage of time, Joe is fortunate that his old pal’s bar is still in existence after two decades.  He’s luckier still that the friend didn’t call the police as Joe is a fugitive in a horrific crime and this person who stands before the barkeep is an older but infinitely more brutal version of the younger drunk.  Joe was given a cell phone - far smaller than the ones he recalls pre-captivity - and when it rings with a mysterious voice on the other end, it is someone Joe doesn’t recognise, but who seems to know an awful lot about him.  The angry, bewildered escapee meets a kindly medic on his travels through town, who becomes a comfort and helpmeet in his quest for answers.  Armed with two comrades and the power of Google, so begins Joe’s hunt for information with clues provided by his memories of capture and the strange man on the phone.

Dreary, flat, oversimplified, exploitative, uninspired.  While I was willing to put away the comparisons to Park Chan-wook’s surreal nightmare, there are far too many vain totems present to allow the viewer to forget.  The original source of both films is a Japanese manga written by Garon Tsuchiya and illustrated by Nobuaki Minegishi and so there will certainly be similarities, but it is clear that the primary template was Park’s 2003 film.

Lee’s version makes some strange changes, like the backstory of Joe Doucett, which was not a wise option.  The person we meet is so totally unlikable that when he’s imprisoned I felt nothing except perhaps a sense of relief that another amoral schmuck was off the streets and wondered if what happened to Joe was really such a bad thing?  That it takes decades of imprisonment and a mawkish reality show for the man to realise he was a terrible father is truly a mark of what a miscreant his is. 

One stunning similarity is the famous hammer fight as Joe invades the building that housed him for twenty years.  He was only one inmate in a private prison, where, for a fee, the wealthy can exile their enemies for as long as desired (Though why so many would choose the Doucett option as opposed to a quick bullet to the head is beyond me.).  The building is like a high-tech armoured fort, filled to capacity with scary guys; that Doucett manages to fend them off with nothing but a hammer is something that simply does not make sense in a modern American film.  Park’s hammer fight made sense; because like much of Asia, it is far more difficult to obtain guns in South Korea than it is in America, where you can get a 12-gauge from Wal-Mart.  Why wouldn’t one of these big bads simply shoot Joe?  It is only one of the film’s inexplicable inconsistencies, but emblematic of the lack of grasp of the material other than on its surface.  Lee also tries very hard to copy the almost balletic combination of the 2003 scene’s street brawling choreography and camerawork, but it’s executed so poorly that the big moment, like so many here, had no impact.  I’ve seen and enjoyed plenty of films that are - intentionally or not - cases of style over substance, but Oldboy’s one-dimensional shallowness has neither.

Whereas Park’s film was a brutal fever dream of violence and perversity, Lee simply is not made of those artistic nuances.  He attempts to shock with CGI heads being blown off and much gore.  We’re given quick-cut kung fu from the sexy, scantily-clad Asian-ish sidekick of Joe’s tormentor.  The hallucinations Joe envisions while in captivity are clumsy and unclever.  The sense of danger or threat once Joe frees himself is vague to the point of non-existence, killing any tension. 

Perhaps to balance all the opaqueness, what we also have is Adrian Pryce, Joe’s mysterious captor, played by Sharlto Copley.  As if to take the leaden weight of the film on his shoulders and inject it with the sense of weirdness that it’s totally lacking, Copley plays the villain as such an over-the-top, shrill creep, had his Van Dyke moustache been just a bit longer, he could’ve twirled it and perfected the performance.  Copley is a freak and Lee lets us know that by his Deadly China(-ish) Doll bodyguard/sex toy and all the erotic art taking up every corner of his monochrome flat (I reckon the production designers thought they were being subtle with the giant, Botero-sized dildo on the mantle.).  Excepting the vain efforts of the luminous Elizabeth Olsen, and including Samuel L. Jackson in a skirt as the pierced, peroxided keeper of the prison, Copley’s performance is so at odds with everyone else’s, which are so workmanlike, that it doesn’t seem to belong in this film.  This is not to confuse Copley’s energy and intention with the awfulness of the performance, which is terrible.  It’s jarring for all the wrong reasons, but would that his lead been followed, then we might not have had to suffer through the meandering flatness of the other portrayals.  Then again, is it really Josh Brolin’s fault that he’s got to play someone as unpleasant as Joe?  We are never given a chance to root for him other than as some kind of character in a video game.  Try as Brolin might – and he does clearly work very hard here, for an unfortunately limited result - we just don’t care.  Neither the script nor direction meet his effort.  By virtue of the shallowness with which they are written, there is not one character here worth caring for, which is part all that’s so wrong about Oldboy.

Surely the failure of this film will prove many right who decried its conception years ago, but however tempting, I would hesitate to use it as a yardstick.  I have no idea whether this would have worked in other hands.  What I can see is that Spike Lee’s were not the ones, and I wonder what a more imaginative director might’ve done with a more profound and clever script.  What Oldboy does prove above all is that taking any classic without truly understanding what made it great – no matter what the culture - and dumbing it down for mass consumption does not and should not work.

Now grab some nakji bokum and soju and watch the original.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Nov. 27th, 2013


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