United States. Directed by Spike Lee, 2013. Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlo Copley, Samuel L. Jackson. 103 minutes.
Remaking Oldboy in English is an odd proposition. The original garnered critical acclaim and a cult following, but not widespread notoriety or huge bank. On top of that, it was released in 2003, so the bandwagon ship sailed years ago. So what’s the point? I don’t have an answer to that question; more importantly, neither do screenwriter Mark Protosevich and director Spike Lee.
The idea of Lee directing isn’t as bizarre as you might think, considering his filmography also includes the likes of Clockers and Inside Man. (And not Rounders, as I said on the yet-to-be-released podcast.) But at least I expected the film to bear some sort of personal stamp, and…
…it really doesn’t. It’s a typical American action-thriller.
First, the characters. Dae-su Oh becomes Joe Doucett, advertising douchebag turned avenging angel douchebag. Mainly he goes around clenching his jaw and beating the shit out of people. It’s harder to feel for Joe, because his ordeal hasn’t made him reflective, only mean.
Meanwhile, Woo-jin Lee has been transformed into Adrian Pryce. You know he’s the bad guy, because he’s got a British accent. Even though his sister seems to be American and his parents German. And even though the actor is actually South African. He’s a Bond villain with a mind-bogglingly complex plan and he insists on taking Joe through every step of it during their confrontation. His lead minion is a hot Asian chick who’s also a master of martial arts, because in Asia if you’re a girl and it looks like you’re going to grow up to be a babe, they put you on the martial arts fast-track in school. It’s a fact.
The adorable Mi-do is represented by the glum Marie Sebastian, the sort of world-weary young woman who’s lived a hard, shitty life and wears it on her face like an actress playing a world-weary young woman who’s lived a hard, shitty life. If you somehow manage to miss that, her male BFF will emerge from the friendzone to tell you all about it.
And then there’s Mr. Chaney, the remake’s equivalent of Mr. Lee. He’s played by Samuel L. Jackson and by God nobody is ever going to let you forget that, let alone Mr. Jackson himself. Every time he’s on-screen you expect him to belt out “I’m sick of these muthafuckin’ oldboys in my muthafuckin’ prison!”
The action sequences. Oh boy, do I ever want to tell you about the action sequences. Dae-su Oh spends 15 years in captivity and turns into a proficient hand-to-hand fighter. Okay, that’s a bit outlandish but I can buy it because the fights are realistic. Joe Doucett, on the other hand, spends 20 years in captivity and turns into, I don’t know, the Incredible fucking Hulk or something. It’s something I’d have trouble buying in a Zack Snyder film, let alone a Spike Lee film. At one point he punches a football player’s leg so hard that it literally breaks and you hear the snap and I think I saw the bone punch through the flesh.
In the original film, the fight in the hallway was creative and actually kind of funny. Lee turns it into something that looks like a platform fighter, like Lode Runner or something. I kept wondering if Joe was gonna fall into a pipe and end up in the minus world.
And yet–I’m as shocked as you are on this one–the remake has its upsides, enough to make the viewing experience a net positive.
The cast is stronger than I expected. If you need a chisel-faced, beady-eyed actor to clench his jaw and stoically beat the stuffing out of nameless goons, you can do a lot worse than Josh Brolin. Sharlto Copley understands that he’s auditioning for the next Bond movie and attacks his role with gusto. What do we say to the God of Not Enjoying Watching Sam Jackson Play Jules from Pulp Fiction in 75% of the Movies He Makes? “Not today.” The real revelation, though, is Elizabeth Olsen, who rolls all of Marie’s damaged-girl clichés into a ball and fashions a real character out of them.
Meanwhile, Lee’s direction is taut, suspenseful and effective, with a number of beautiful compositions. (Admittedly, he’s at his best when he apes Park.) Protosevich’s script preserves the sensitive treatment of the film’s main twist, which I was absolutely sure would be watered down for American audiences. I also really liked the ending, which is more cynical and less hopeful than the original’s.
Yes, Oldboy is a typical pointless American remake. But it does exist, and since it does, we might as well give it a fair shake. It’s not remarkable, but it is entertaining, particularly if you can keep yourself from constantly comparing it to the original.