A scene from THE HATEFUL EIGHT.

The Hateful Eight

United States. Directed by Quentin Tarantino, 2015. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bechir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern. 187 minutes (roadshow edition). 9/10

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, would turn out to be a Western homage to the John Carpenter version of The Thing. Tarantino pretty much built his career by recontextualizing chunks of genres and even specific films and assembling the pieces into something new. When Ennio Morricone, who famously swore off scoring Westerns and Tarantino films, agreed to compose the music for a film about Kurt Russell snowbound and stranded at a remote outpost…well, we should have seen that as a clue to what was going on.

To which I say: cool! I’ve always wanted to see QT play around more with horror elements in his directorial work; I thought Grindhouse would have been much more interesting if he’d directed Planet Terror, not Death Proof. The Hateful Eight doesn’t quite qualify as a horror film, but it’s the closest Tarantino has yet come.

Tarantino casts Russell as a bounty hunter escorting his latest quarry, the murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to the hands of the law (and, not coincidentally, a handsome payday), only to find the two trapped at a Wyoming outpost by a brutal blizzard alongside some shady characters: a fellow bounty hunter and former Union war hero (Samuel L. Jackson), a one-time Reb terrorist turned lawman (Walton Goggins), a retired Confederate general (Bruce Dern), the local executioner (Tim Roth), a quiet cowpoke (Michael Madsen), and the Mexican left to take care of the outpost in the owners’ absence (Demián Bichir). The distrustful Ruth suspects one or more of the men may not be what he says he is, and believes a plot to free Daisy might be underway.

The story unfolds in classic Tarantino style; in the three-hour “roadshow edition” (featuring extra footage, a musical interlude, and an intermission), almost everything before the break consists of talking, and everything after it consists of action. Dialog-heavy sequences almost always live and die on the actors performing them, doubly so in QT’s efforts. Much of the cast are veterans of previous Tarantino films–Madsen and Roth have been with him since Reservoir Dogs, Jackson since Pulp Fiction–even minor players such as Dana Gourrier and Zoë Bell. Something about working with him seems to fire up his frequent collaborators; Jackson in particular, who seems more engaged with his material than he has in other recent projects such as Oldboy. But the standout here is Leigh, who interprets Daisy as a nexus of chaos given human form.

Tarantino returns the favor by giving the cast great material to work with: meaty dialog and vivid characterization. None of the dramatis personae are heroes or even particularly sympathetic; instead, they’re bastards and psychopaths to a man (and woman). Russell, ostensibly on the side of the law, spends much of his time beating up Leigh; Jackson’s true self hides behind a well-constructed veneer that’s nevertheless as fake as Roth’s Monty Python accent. With the assistance of Morricone’s creeping sinister score, Tarantino never allows the audience to become too comfortable with this lot, with new information constantly forcing us to re-assess what we think we already know. Of course, everything eventually goes south, but there’s no catharsis in the graphic violence that ensues, no sense of karma or justice playing out.

Even at three hours, The Hateful Eight keeps a steady pace–not slow or brisk, but deliberate, not allowing any sequence to drag. The much-vaunted Ultra Panavision 70 format does wonders for the snow-covered exterior vistas, which we knew it would; surprisingly, it plays just as well in the interiors, bestowing a sense of intimacy to the close-quarters sequences.

Like him or lump him–and I’ve been known to do both–Quentin Tarantino remains one of our most steadfastly singular filmmakers, and The Hateful Eight constitutes another feather in his cap. Nobody else could make a film like this. For that matter, nobody else would even be allowed to make a film like this, and that’s what makes it special.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT poster.

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