Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review: "Oldboy"

Director: Spike Lee
Runtime: 104 minutes

There's nothing inherently wrong with an American remake of an acclaimed foreign film. Though there's hardly a notable catalog of successful Hollywood remakes, successes aren't impossible. Just two years ago, David Fincher delivered his take on Sweden's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Despite sharing similar problems with the original (which stem from the novel), Fincher's version was a vastly superior work of pure craft. Go back a few years more, and there's Martin Scorsese's The Departed (based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs), which took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. So what's the verdict on Spike Lee's Oldboy, a remake of Park Chan-wook's acclaimed South Korean thriller? 

The short answer is that no, Lee's version doesn't hold a candle to the original. But to dismiss it for that reason alone would be foolish. And, in fairness, Lee's version does have its merits, even though they feel superfluous in the shadow of the Korean version. Even when Lee and writer Mark Protosevich deliver, the results are but a shadow of the previous iteration. 

It doesn't help matters that Oldboy gets off to a jarringly sloppy start. From the frenetic editing to the rushed line delivery, the film's establishing scenes, in which Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) drinks, fights with his ex-wife, and drinks some more, are hacky and amateurish. Joe's starting point in the film makes sense on paper, but Brolin's first moments feel like bad rehearsals. Things get a little better once Joe is captured and imprisoned in a mysterious, window-less room, but the filmmaking and acting remain disconcertingly subpar. Watching Park Chan-wook and the great Min Sik-choi chronicle the maddening years of imprisonment was visceral and unsettling cinema. Lee and Brolin's take quickly slides into tedium. Even as Joe learns, via his cell's TV, that he's been framed for rape and murder, the psychological component remains out of the film's grasp.

Only when Joe is mysteriously thrown back into the world does Lee's film start to improve, and even then the improvements seem like a lackluster reward for one's patience. Joe, understandably, struggles to put together the scraps of his former life (20 years is a long time to be kept in confinement). Old friends barely recognize him, but one (Michael Imperioli, whose character only exists within his bar and apartment) finally takes pity on him. Joe also befriends a young nurse named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who becomes determined to help him because the plot requires it. A version of Olsen's character exists in the original, but she was introduced in a way that felt in line with the narrative. Olsen, sadly, is brought in through a clunky intro that revolves around her position as a nurse. Even in the details that Oldboy keeps the same, it still fumbles with the moment-to-moment execution.

If it seems like Lee's film has nothing to offer, that's not quite the case. One of Park's film's best known scenes is its brutal hallway fight, in which the protagonist fights off dozens of henchman in a single crowded, brutal shot. Lee changes the scene's setup to the point where it almost feels like a video game, but it works. With this breathless, stylized crescendo of assault and battery, the director starts attacking the material with conviction. Everything afterwards is far from perfect, but there is, thankfully, a consistent increase in overall quality from here on out. 

Where Lee and company really make an impression is in the last half hour. In a pair of smartly-executed flashbacks, Lee elegantly overlays images of the past on the present. Even more striking is the director's handling of the story's shocking and disturbing climactic twist, doled out largely in a single, knockout camera movement. Everything - the directing, the writing, the imagery - finally coalesce into the movie that this remake should have been. 

But even for the uninitiated, it may not be enough. There will be, not surprisingly, those who find themselves too repulsed to enjoy to twisted nature of the conclusion. Yet even those who find it riveting will still have to contend with the mixed bag that precedes the final act. It's hard to find anything consistent or noteworthy for so much of Oldboy, that it threatens to completely sever one's engagement with the story and the characters. 

Even District 9 star Sharlto Copley, as Joe's shadowy tormenter, isn't enough to hold it all together. As much as Copley digs into his outrageously stylized character, he feels like he belongs in a 1950s Bond movie. Despite his muscular build, Copley's sneering Adrian is the sort of sinisterly effeminate type that Hollywood used to love parading in front of audiences with a wink and a nod.

So as much as Oldboy deserves credit for ending with its best foot forward, it's a hard movie to endorse with much enthusiasm. When Lee's sensibilities actually click with the material, there are tantalizing hints at the great, American-ized remake that could have been. Unfortunately, those moments make up too little of this middling, yet competent, retread of a film that's already something of a cult classic. As is often the case, you're better off simply watching the original, especially since Netflix finally uploaded the original South Korean version with English subtitles. 

Grade: C+

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