Josh Brolin stars in OLDBOY

Oldboy

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.

Oldboy poster

Oldboy

Retro Review: Oldboy

South Korea. Directed by Chan-wook Park, 2003. Starring Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang. 119 minutes.

Are you a good person?

Silly question, right? Of course you are. Look at you, your life. Your family loves you. Your friends consider you a boon companion. You work hard and your boss respects you. You donate to charity, you volunteer at the senior center.

Okay, maybe you have a couple of vices. You might drink too much, or spend more money than you can afford on luxuries. Perhaps you cheat on your spouse. But you probably don’t.

Or maybe you have a secret. Were you the school bully? Did you swipe money from the collection basket? Tell a lie that hurt someone else? Probably–causing trouble is what kids do–but it was so long ago that you can’t remember and even if you could it doesn’t matter, right? Right.

So what are you doing in this prison cell?

Sure, it looks like a hotel room–bed, television, chest of drawers, bathroom and shower–but don’t let that fool you. It’s not like you can just walk out whenever you want: the door is bolted shut from the outside, and the window is fake. Someone slides your meals through a hatch in the door.

Seems as if you’ve made an enemy over the years. Maybe you’re not the upstanding citizen you believe yourself you are, and you’ve made a lot of enemies. Someone put you here, but who?

And what will you do when you get out?

In Oldboy, Chan-wook Park’s classic 2003 thriller, protagonist Dae-su Oh finds himself in this very position. The film thoughtfully considers its twin themes of revenge and redemption. It’s easy enough to say “revenge brings catharsis” or “revenge doesn’t bring catharsis” but as a dramatic theme, revenge is a bit more complex than that and you can tell Park and his screenwriters put more thought into it than many other filmmakers might. It all culminates in a conclusion that left my eyes watering and my jaw agape.

The film’s streak of dark comedy (the suicidal man on the rooftop is a treat) shifts to a darker, more serious tone over the course of the film, with such subtlety that you might not even notice you stopped laughing. The script deals with some difficult subject matter, but treats it with sensitivity and respect instead of sensationalizing and exploiting it.

The film hinges on the performances of its four lead actors. Min-sik Choi is nothing short of phenomenal in the role of Dae-su. His physical presence is highly effective, particularly in the half-hour or so following his release from imprisonment. As befits a man who’s spent the last fifteen years of his life in a space no larger than a spacious bedroom, he holds himself very compactly. His movements are quick, his reflexes squirrelly. Throughout the film he moves like a tightly wound spring that could uncoil at any moment.

That’s enough to impress by itself, but Choi also has the emotive skills to sell such a complex character. You can readily buy him as a man whose decade and a half of imprisonment have driven him more than a little crazy, and his ability to change moods on a dime (note two scenes where he goes from rage to apologetic simpering in a matter of milliseconds) is magical.

His opposite number is Ji-tae Yoo as Lee, Oh’s enemy and the man behind his imprisonment. Lee starts the film as a straight-up villain but as the film progresses we learn more about the exact nature of the relationship between Oh and Lee and Yoo deftly maneuvers through the shift in sympathy. Hye-jung Kang is adorable as Mi-do, a young sushi chef who starts the film as Oh’s ally and who eventually becomes his lover. Dal-su Oh’s Mr. Park, the manager of the unique prison Dae-su finds himself in, is memorable and entertaining as the sneering baddie Yoo doesn’t allow himself to play.

Visually, the film is a delight to watch from start to finish. Park’s visual sense is impeccable and much of the visual imagery is delightful (Dae-su’s emergence from the steamer trunk is a particular favorite moment). He doesn’t skimp on the blood or the action; the violent sequences stick in the mind for days afterward (I’ll never look at a claw hammer the same way) and the fights are clever, inventive and engaging. I appreciated how Dae-su, while a proficient fighter, is never portrayed as a superhuman badass and this anchors the suspension of disbelief.

It may seem like I haven’t given a balanced overview of Oldboy by describing its negatives as well as its positives. The truth is that it’s one of those rare films in which I can find no flaws whatsoever. As far as I can tell, it comes as close to perfect as a movie can.

Oldboy poster