Rugged "Oldboy" Remake Rivets, Revolts In Equal Measure

Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” might be the most bizarre mainstream release of 2013, but not necessarily for the expected reasons. Yes, Chan-wook Park’s 2003 original is a head-trip, giving any remake a leg up in the weirdness department. But the confounding (and frequently fascinating) nature of this reimagining begins with Spike Lee being a peculiar choice to redo “Oldboy” and ends somewhere in the ether – between Josh Brolin’s hypnotic lead performance and FilmDistrict’s decision to strip their director of final cut privileges (eliminating somewhere between 20 and 40 minutes from his preferred cut).

Studio interference is commonplace in Hollywood, but why hire someone as uncompromising as Spike Lee as a mere hired gun? His voice is amongst the loudest and most vibrant in American cinema. Why employ him in the first place if you’re not comfortable with seeing his artistic vision through – especially in the shadow of such warped source material? This is the writer-director of “Do The Right Thing,” a legitimate masterpiece of a-day-in-the-life storytelling – one that sheds light on the explosiveness of cross-cultural stereotyping all while maintaining an immersive pop-art vibe. Difficult material is Lee’s forte. Second-guessing that kind of track record would sink most films.

But “Oldboy” circa 2013 isn’t most films, and the battle between Lee and his bosses – while evident – only makes the end result more interesting. Chan-wook Park’s film was beautifully fluent in the language of cinema, dressed with some incredible editing choices and relentless in its pacing. For the most part, Lee’s take keeps an appropriate distance from the Korean version, demarcating itself early on as its own film. It’s moodier, more violent (hard to do, but it does it), and extraordinarily self-aware. Basically, it’s completely insane, but that’s why it’s so watchable.

The story begins simply enough, as it should. It’s 1993. Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, a narcissistic drunkard who’s too caught up in himself to make time for his 3 year-old daughter. His life as an ad exec is mostly a cover for his indiscretions, and within 10 minutes of the opening titles, he finds himself locked up in a dingy hotel room. Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich expand wonderfully on the character’s imprisonment, introducing some abstract flourishes that make the predicament that much more unsettling. The smiling face of a bellhop affixed to a poster on the wall haunts Joe – a nice visual touch that enhances the disquiet of the room – while his relationship with a family of mice is particularly disheartening.

As the years march on and Joe’s hair grows long – accompanied by various news clips of real-world happenings – the television in his room becomes a character unto itself. It reveals that Joe was framed for the murder of his ex-wife, while his daughter, Mia, has been adopted and is now a burgeoning young cellist. Joe digs down deep within himself, resolving to escape, the thought of revenge driving him to work himself into peak physical shape. No more alcohol and as much exercise as his tiny room will allow. Soon, it’s been 20 years. And suddenly, his captor releases him.

Decimated by culture shock, Joe goes off the rails – and the film follows suit. A hilariously out of place fight scene with a handful of football players is merely a sign of things to come. With it, this previously dark genre piece takes a hard left into campiness (far beyond the intermittent silliness of the original), veering back and forth between the two for the remainder of its running time. The iconic hammer fight scene from Park’s film is recreated a bit too faithfully. Stripped of its gravitas and staged like a video game cutscene, it’s far more likely to provoke laughter than oohs and aahs. Add to that a relatively brief appearance by Samuel L. Jackson as Joe’s flamboyant jailer and the tastefulness of the first act is a distant memory.

Now a free man but with more questions than when he was locked up, Joe meets a young medic named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who vows to help him find his captor and locate Mia in the process. Brolin and Olsen have zero chemistry, making their inevitable love connection all the more unwelcome. But as underwhelming as Olsen is here, Sharlto Copley gives one of the most ludicrous performances of the year as the shadowy figure that imprisoned our protagonist.

It’s a cartoonish, mustache-twirling showing if there ever was one, and it completely undermines the brooding nature of the screenplay and Brolin’s performance. It’s impossible to reconcile Copley’s creative choices with the rest of the film, so much so that I have to believe it was a deliberate choice intended to disarm audiences. It’s so off-kilter that it almost works, but Copley isn’t given enough screen time to substantiate the character’s wackiness. Furthermore, it’s obvious that many of his scenes didn’t make the final cut. Understandable, but it only makes me that much more curious to see Lee’s version of the film.

The ending of Park’s film is still intact – which is an accomplishment in itself – although plenty of red herrings have been thrown in to keep viewers guessing. The big reveal gets a more satisfying build-up, allowing for Lee to better make sense of the pic’s tonal inconsistencies. He doesn’t entirely succeed, but damn it if he doesn’t try. And when Brolin’s steely eyes and Copley’s laughably whimsical vocal stylings finally meet, the results are as weird as anyone could hope for.

The climax is accented by music cues cribbed from Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” score. But if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. It fits the material perfectly, as the pic is more indebted to Hitchcock than Chan-wook Park. At its core, this is mystery film, and Lee borrows liberally from Hitch’s playbook. Like Hitchcock’s best work, its atmosphere unsettles and seems to be from an era unto itself. Not timeless, per se, but not tied to any particular period of filmmaking.

Despite a cavalcade of warts, it’s captivating to watch Spike Lee dabble in genre filmmaking. It’s wonderful to see an established filmmaker work outside of his comfort zone like this. Rarely have I had this much fun watching such an uneven piece, but I was engrossed from beginning to end, each scene evoking a strong response. Even when I knew what was coming. Any film that can do that deserves to be recognized, and I suspect this one will be in the years to come. Probably not yet, judging by its meager opening weekend box office, but someday.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 27, 2013
Studio: FilmDistrict
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriter: Mark Protosevich
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, James Ransone, Samuel L. Jackson
MPAA Rating: R (for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language)