November 27, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “Oldboy”


OLDBOY:  Watch It At Home – Spike Lee’s Graphic Remake Falls Flat

In the course of his career, Spike Lee has made some violent movies, but he’s never gotten off on the bloodshed; he’s not a rapturous pulpist, like Quentin Tarantino or Brian DePalma in his prime.  To remake Chan-Wook Park’s cult classic OLDBOY, though, you need that kind of transgressive sensibility, a simultaneous sick dread and wicked enjoyment of human agony.  Without it, Lee’s new film feels distanced and empty.  Lee has rarely made Hollywood entertainments, but his Inside Man carried his trademark cinematic swagger right into its familiar genre conventions–every image popped.  Oldboy is the first movie he’s made that feels impersonal, like a paycheck job.  (It may or may not be significant that this is the first time in memory that Lee’s own credit reads “A Spike Lee Film” rather than “Joint.”)

Lee hasn’t rethought the material to fit his own world.  Mark Protosevich’s script for the most part follows the original almost scene-by-scene, diverging significantly only near the end.  In both versions, a dissolute businessman, here named Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), awakens from another night of self-destructive drinking to find himself in a private prison, a single windowless room where he has no contact with any other human being, fed the same cycle of daily meals through a slot in the door.  For 20 years, his only access to the outside world comes via the television on his wall, which is how he learns that he’s been framed for the murder of his ex-wife, and his daughter has been adopted by another family and taken up a musical career.  Doucett tries to destroy himself, and when that proves impossible, he reshapes himself into a lean, sober, single-minded agent of revenge.  Then, as abruptly as he was abducted, he is set free, and even as he tracks down his jailer, aided by a young counselor (Elizabeth Olsen) he meets shortly after his release, he comes to learn that he’s still enmeshed in a larger plot of vengeance, with a mysterious figure (Sharlto Copley) playing a central part in the story.  (Longtime Lee co-star Samuel L. Jackson shows up as well, as the Mohawked warden of Doucett’s prison.)

The remake faithfully reproduces much of the graphic violence of Park’s version, including the celebrated sequence in which the hero has to make his way through a horde of murderous attackers armed only with a hammer.  (Reportedly in the original 3-hour director’s cut of Lee’s film, the sequence, as in the original, was played out in a single unbroken take; the shortened version–whether for time or ratings purposes isn’t clear–does include a cut.)  But Park’s extravagant melodrama doesn’t come naturally to Lee, and especially in the late going, where Copley’s character becomes key and the preposterousness is stepped up, the director just seems to be doggedly doing what the script tells him.  Without Park’s passion, the gigantic plot holes become too glaring, and the material lacks the tragic grandeur it desperately needs to avoid silliness.  (If anything, the revised backstory in Protosevich’s script is even more convoluted than in the original, although his altered denouement carries a certain grim satisfaction.)

Brolin commits fully to the difficult role of Doucett, among other things enduring weight gain and loss to indicate the passage of years, but he’s hard-pressed to express more than furious determination, only occasionally showing the epic pain under Doucett’s murderousness.  Olsen, in the story’s only other major role, successfully suggests the damage that lies behind her character’s willingness to help, while Copley’s flat-out weirdness, while not wrong for his part, never fits with the other more grounded performances.

This is the first time Lee has worked with the cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (he’s done all of Steve McQueen’s films, including 12 Years A Slave), and aside from an instance of Lee’s emblematic actor-on-dolly shot, there’s very little visually to suggest that it’s a Spike Lee movie; the photography is handsomely anonymous.  Given the studio-imposed final cut (the released version runs 102 minutes), it’s probably unfair to read much into the brisk but uncompelling editing by Barry Alexander Brown, a Lee veteran.  The decision to set Oldboy in an anonymous American city (New York?  New Orleans?) seems unwise, since part from the prison itself, the concept robs personality from Sharon Seymour’s production design.

For those who haven’t seen the original, Oldboy tells an unusual story with an effectively dark twist proficiently enough.  It’s a disappointment, though, both for fans of Chan-Wook Park and Spike Lee, neither of whose special filmmaking gifts are particularly in evidence here.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."