dir. Spike Lee
Release Date: Nov 27, 13
Let’s just get this out of the way: Spike Lee’s Oldboy doesn’t need to exist. Like so many remakes, it’s a film whose ostensible purpose is to somehow improve on its source material, in this case Park Chan-wook’s 2003 masterpiece, when the only necessary updates are surface polishes. Maybe, then, a straighter remake may have come off better than the mess Lee offers up, a jumble of inexplicable alterations to a nearly airtight original script and a heap of performances that range from average to actively terrible.
Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is an all-around piece of shit, a ne’er-do-well whose primary interests include drinking, womanizing, drugs, and neglecting his daughter Mia. It’s 1993, and Joe is out on a bender one night, when he’s refused entry to his friend Chucky’s (Michael Imperioli) bar. Joe ends up abducted and stranded away in a mysterious room, where he’s provided fresh clothes, food, and hot water every day for 20 years with no knowledge of who’s holding him captive, or why. (He’s also informed that his wife was raped and murdered, and that he’s been framed.) After two decades, just as Joe’s about to escape, he’s released back into the world with no further knowledge. He finds sympathetic ears both with Chucky and with Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a young volunteer nurse, as he tries to put together the lost pieces of his life.
The beauty of Oldboy isn’t so much that you’re trying to piece together a mystery as the film projects before you, but rather the moral ambiguity of a protagonist who, as it turns out, was rather rightly punished for his indiscretions, if with a level of severity that most would call unreasonable. Lee’s film smooths over some of the rougher edges; Joe is clearly our hero, even as he’s violently assaulting high schoolers about five minutes after being released into the world, or slowly and sadistically torturing the warden of his private prison (Samuel L. Jackson, riffing on his performance in The Spirit apparently) for the sakes of interrogation and cathartic entertainment. Nothing is helped by Sharlto Copley’s shadowy villain; in what has to be the charming actor’s worst performance to date, Copley lands him somewhere between a fey 1950s noir baddie and Michael Sheen’s king vampire in the Twilight movies.
As for Brolin, he gnaws on the scenery with vigor until Olsen shows up to ground the film in reality. Her perfectly fine turn is the high-water mark for Oldboy, an update which feels so perfunctory that you’ll find yourself wondering by about the half-hour mark exactly why Spike Lee or any of these actors wanted to take it on. Lee’s direction is scattershot, and what’s worse, it’s also workmanlike. Rid of his normal stylistic touches (right down to this being a Spike Lee Film, not a Joint), Lee turns out the sort of cookie-cutter thriller that any accomplished B-movie filmmaker could manage. Not even the violence lands; all sorts of gruesome things are done with hammers and shanks, but there’s no impact or resonance to it. So here’s an Oldboy with little of the morality or bracing violence or coherence in its famed twist ending, which begs the question again: Why did this really even need to exist?