1 December 2013 | shawneofthedead
A remake that's just about adequate on its own merits, but is hardly a patch on the film on which it was based.
Hollywood remakes of Asian films are always an iffy proposition. How will the nuances and culturally-specific references translate across oceans and continents? Generally, however good the remakes, they rarely – if ever – eclipse the original films. In recent memory, perhaps only Martin Scorsese's The Departed, based on Infernal Affairs, has managed to find a life of its own. Other remakes, like The Lake House and Shall We Dance?, have sunk into ignominy. Spike Lee's Oldboy isn't completely terrible, but it does lose quite a bit of the dark, bruising, ambivalent flavour of Park Chan-Wook's 2003 Korean classic.
Josh Brolin takes centre stage in Lee's version. He sinks credibly into the abrasive, drunken skin of Joe Doucett, a slimy guy whose wife and daughter Mia have left him. Nevertheless, Joe continues to merrily offend everyone around him, until he is abruptly kidnapped and trapped in a hotel room for twenty years. During his arduous time spent in solitary confinement, Joe ponders the mystery of his captor. When he finally gets free, he resolves to seek revenge and re-connect with Mia – a mission that becomes increasingly fraught with complications as horrifying secrets from his past are unearthed.
On its own merits, Oldboy – the title as obtuse as ever – is passably gripping. It entertains and horrifies in equal measure, packing in a great deal of bone-crunching violence and torture that runs the gamut from physical to psychological and everything in between. The relationship that develops between Joe and charity worker Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) is well-acted, if a little forced. Lee even cooks up a pretty disturbing face-off between Joe and Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson), the guy in charge of locking up people for his clients – no questions asked.
What works rather less well is the deliberate dilution of the twist in Oldboy's tale, presumably because American audiences can only handle so much moral and emotional ambiguity. Where Park's version sees the revenge mission warped with a horrifyingly emotional dilemma, Lee's film shies away from the conundrum. As a result, the film becomes far less subtle and considerably more melodramatic. There's a flashback sequence towards the end of the film that's ridiculous enough to make audiences laugh rather than gasp, even as blood splatters across walls and families are torn apart.
The cast assembled is impressive, even though they're not really given a lot to work with in the frequently stilted, over-blown script. Brolin anchors the film with admirably stony determination, but his Joe never seems to really feel the weight of his twenty years without human contact. Olsen, too, stumbles around a bit, as if never quite sure how to play her part, and Sharlto Copley comes close to overplaying his hand when he emerges from the shadows to drop a few hints about the reasons behind Joe's ordeal.
There's enough on display in Oldboy for the film to jog by at a fairly quick clip. Lee pays tribute along the way to a few iconic elements of the Korean film – an octopus in a tank, a prolonged battle in a corridor – and the cast tries its hardest to make it all work. But it's hard to shake the feeling that something a little deeper, richer, sadder and weirder was lost in translating the film into a vernacular more pleasing to Hollywood audiences.