Movies Without Pity

Oldboy: It’s Not Terrible, Guys!

by admin November 27, 2013 6:00 am
Oldboy: It’s Not Terrible, Guys!

If somebody had to remake Oldboy, I'm glad it was Spike Lee. Arriving a full decade after Park Chan-wook's original film warped peoples' fragile little minds, setting off the South Korean New Wave in the process, this Americanized version is a surprisingly faithful re-do at least in terms of the general arc of the plot. Once again, a drunkard (Josh Brolin this time) wakes up from night of alcohol-fueled revelry to find himself locked in a hotel room, where he proceeds to spend the next twenty years of his life. When he's unexpectedly released one day, he embarks on a mission of vengeance that takes him to some dark, messed-up places that if you've seen the original you already know about and if you haven't, I'm not about to ruin it for you. Where the film establishes its own identity, however, is in its style; while Chan-wook's Oldboy constantly teeters on the edge of the absurd -- finally tipping over in the final act -- Lee rushes full-bore into Crazytown early on and the results are fun to watch, even when Oldboy 2.0 threatens to dissolve into a blood-red puddle of pure ridiculousness.

As far back as She's Gotta Have It, Lee has established himself as an unapologetically flamboyant director, not shy about choreographing elaborate, eye-catching shots that seem to exist solely to demonstrate his technical prowess. In his best movies (and, off the top of my head, I'd list Do the Right Thing, He Got Game and Crooklyn in that company), that shoot-the-moon approach is beautifully in tune with the material. Other times, though (think Get on the Bus and She Hate Me), it's as if the movie's content is at war with Lee's style. The reason Oldboy is ideal for Lee and vice versa is due to that fact that a tale this out there needs, nay demands an equally outré visual sensibility. Certainly, the original film could be a described as a feature-length director's reel highlighting Chan-wook's brio behind the camera. It's got a graphic (and graphically violent) sensibility that speaks to its origins as a Japanese manga and the action sequences -- most notably a famous hallway battle with the anti-hero battling an army of weapons-wielding bad guys -- has the kind of fluidity and building intensity you expect to see in a video game.

That hallway sequence is persevered in the new film (you couldn't remake the movie without it, let's be honest), but Lee adds… well, let's just say levels to it that allows it to nod at the original before very quickly becoming its own thing. And that's how it goes for the rest of the movie. If you've seen Chan-wook's version, you'll recognize many of the individual scenes, but they vibrate at a different frequency here, with Lee going big and broad where his predecessor tended to be more coolly composed. To frame it in a context that a jazz aficionado like Lee might agree with, the difference between the two films is the difference between cool jazz and free jazz.

That goes for the characterizations as well as the choice of shots, by the way. Take Sam Jackson, reuniting with Lee for the first time since Jungle Fever way back in 1991 (nice to see they buried that two-decade old hatchet over Quentin Tarantino), who pops up as the proprietor of the prison/hotel that Brolin calls home sporting a blonde Mr. T-esque Mohawk and a bright red shirt. And then there's Brolin himself, who growls and grimaces his way through the part of revenge-seeker Joe Doucett like he's playing a younger, more bloodthirsty Clint Eastwood. (Apparently, Tommy Lee Jones isn't the only veteran actor he can expertly mimic.) But both of them are topped by District 9's Sharlto Copley (whose identity in the film I won't give away) who makes some very, very, very bold acting choices that not everyone in the audience will be able to get on board with. Copley is so divorced from the rest of the cast in his physicality and even basic tone, he's essentially acting in his own movie. But it's not an accident or a goof -- it's a grandly theatrical approach that's designed to confound the audience. (Too bad Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Joe's sidekick and burgeoning love interest, isn't allowed to have as much fun as the boys, instead mostly serving as a blank-faced sexual prop. Then again, Lee's track record with female characters has always been wildly uneven; for every Nola Darling there's a Dakota Burns and Fatima Goodrich.)

Copley's outlandish performance is the key to appreciating what Lee is up to in Oldboy. Where most genre films seek to establish one consistent reality, this one is forever bobbing and weaving, pulling away the layers of the world we thought we knew and revealing yet another fresh hell. And that, after all, is what Joe's journey is about; here's a somewhat ordinary guy who is abruptly displaced from his own universe and plunged into a parallel reality where peoples' identities and personal histories are always shifting. And while I wouldn't consider this to be one of the Lee's finest movies -- or a better film than the original, for that matter, largely because it ditches the dramatic punch and meta-textual wit in favor of pure pulp sensationalism -- it's the ideal vehicle for a director just looking to cut loose and let his visual imagination run wild.

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