Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, James Ransone, Max Casella, Pom Klementieff, Lance Reddick
Running Time: 104 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Watching Spike Lee's remake of Park Chan Wook's 2003 South Korean cult classic Oldboy, it occurred to me just how little I remembered about the original. Of course, there's one thing EVERYONE remembers and all eyes were on how Lee would handle or avoid the gigantic, shocking twist that constitutes the core of the story. He's really in a no-win situation. The film can't exist without it, yet if he decides to go there, critics and audiences will call for his head, accusing him of not only remaking a respected classic, but doing so pointlessly by not altering enough of it. Lee handles this thankless dilemma in the best way possible, even if any choice he made would have been wrong in the eyes of the original's rabid admirers. But if that version's so good, why am I having problems remembering it? There's the twist and the famous hammer hallway scene, all wrapped around a story that's fairly unique and daring, not to mention downright disturbing. But I haven't thought of it since. At least until now.
Being no fan of Spike Lee's and counting very few (if any) of his films amongst my favorites, this strangely ranks as one of his most satisfying outings for me. Remakes are a good idea for him since they're completely out of his comfort zone, reining in his worst tendencies and removing some of the pressure of having his original fingerprints all over it. His creative loyalty must be to the source material rather than his own ideas, which have always been shaky and inconsistent at best. If the original Oldboy didn't exist, I'm convinced the reception to this film would have been far different. And retaining certain elements from the original doesn't make it "safe, "as its sharp edges remain surprisingly intact. The film definitely won't be confused with your generic, run-of-the-mill sanitized Hollywood thriller, which should have been the biggest fear going in.
It's 1993 and alcoholic ad executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) just lost a major potential client and is arguing with his ex-wife about how little he's been involved in their 3-year-old daughter Mia's life. After arriving in a drunken stupor at the front door of good friend Chucky's (Michael Imperioli) bar late at night, he encounters a woman with a yellow umbrella before being knocked unconscious. He awakens imprisoned in a hotel room with vodka and Chinese food, seeing on TV that he's been framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife while Mia was put up for adoption. That's all he knows, but it's enough. He quits drinking, starts writing letters to his daughter and gets himself into fighting shape, training for the day he can escape.
Twenty years pass before Joe's let out by his mysteriously deranged captor (Sharlto Copley) whose identity and motives for imprisoning and eventually releasing him remain unknown. But it's a mystery he'll have to solve if he wants to clear his name and be reunited with daughter Mia, who only knows her missing father as a murderer. He gets help comes from Chucky and nurse Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen), whose own troubled past and weakness for helping tortured souls puts her in harm's way. The clock ticks for Joe, with his only shot at a father-daughter reunion hinging on finding out why this happened, and acclimating himself to life as a fugitive in 2013.
It's easy to forget just how strong a premise this is. While everyone can agree the film's central concept is brilliant and needn't be heavily tampered with, a great deal of suspense comes from speculating just how far Lee's willing to stray from the original film (as well as the Japanese Manga from which that's adapted) when Joe is released. That tension reaches alarming levels in one particular scene, as we're not quite sure yet whether screenwriter Mark Protosevich plans on repeating the shocking twist or going in an entirely different direction.
Without giving too much away, it's almost as if you're watching everything unfold with double awareness, seeing what's actually happening as it is, but with that sick thought in the back of your mind that it may be this other thing that the original pulled. There's legitimate doubt and the movie has fun with this, zigging and zagging in certain ways and offers up a great deal of misdirection to throw viewers off the trail. There's probably no better recent case of a remake actively engaging the audiences' knowledge (or lack thereof) of the original as part of the film experience. It's always arguable whether certain things work or don't, but you can't say it doesn't do so equally for both familiar and uninitiated viewers.
There's a twenty year imprisonment here as opposed to the fifteen year term the protagonist endures in the 2003 version and that's important only in the sense that it brings us into the present time and makes Joe's disconnect to the real world a little more pronounced. The early scenes of Joe's plight are particularly gripping, giving us an even better idea of the passage of time and hammering home key cultural touchstones via the media. It also takes full advantage of the protagonist waking up to a society that's technologically moved past him, as he's forced to adjust to iphones having taken the place of the beepers and phone booths of the early nineties. That he has no idea how to use his means of communication with his captor makes for some funny scenes, making us stop and consider a fairly recent advance that's already taken for granted.
The fight scenes are deliriously entertaining and well choreographed but I'd be lying if I said the big hallway hammer sequence comes off as well as it did in the original. It works on its own terms and Brolin is great at selling it, but there was something about the lighting and cramped corridor that made the staging of the original extra special. Lee was probably wise in not attempting to exactly duplicate it, as Gus Van Sant found out the hard way with his shower scene reenactment in 1998's Psycho. He also makes very clever, original use of flashbacks that could have felt especially tired since it's a story some are already familiar with. He actually has the characters in the present as somewhat active participants in the past events, which often makes for a striking and creepy visual. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit does a great job here, as images linger in the mind's eye long after the credits have rolled.
Brolin was the right choice to play Joe, as he expertly conveys a silent anger befitting a fairly complex character. He's also believably intimidating as a brutish tough guy, despite the quite sadness over his daughter being what stands out most in the performance. Though we know from the original that Elizabeth Olsen's Marie will likely be important, she would have been anyway since Olsen is so captivating and capable in the role. Clearly nursing some serious emotional wounds from her past, she has her guard constantly up with this guy, yet still can't help falling in. Her involvement isn't a coincidence but just how it isn't keeps you guessing all the way, with Olsen's natural instincts as a performer further solidifying her status amongst the most talented of young actresses.
Sharlto Copley's performance is absolutely insane and next level as far as movie baddies go. There's simply no other way to put it. This is how it's done. Creepy, scary, menacing and dangerous, his character is the most original creation in the film, gloriously hitting his peak in the final scenes when the truth comes out. The screen time may be limited, but he chews up each scene like a madman. Samuel L. Jackson's presence as the henchman doing Copley's character's bidding is less welcome, if only because it feels like a performance we've seen from him countless time before. It's not his fault he's been typecast in this badass persona but at least he's collecting his paycheck for a quality film this time, in a remake that doesn't feel like a cash-in.
A South Korean film is bound to have elements that appeal primarily to that country's audience and leave us scratching our heads, while the reverse is also true. So adapting a foreign thriller for American audiences is far from "pointless" when considering different cultures. That's true here in a script incorporating media obsession with a late act development that calls to mind something out of The Truman Show. And unless I'm mistaken, it seems we get a closer look at the inner workings behind Joe's actual imprisonment and release, in a way not totally dissimilar to the presentation of the CRS organization in The Game. This is largely one calculated game in which Joe is the playing piece and his unknown adversary controls the board. This is all Lee and Protosevich updating the material just enough to make an impact, while still preserving the creative integrity and themes of the original.
This couldn't have turned out better, while still representing Spike Lee at the top of his game, excelling in a genre few figured he could. Supposedly, there's an unreleased 144-minute director's cut of this movie that may not see the light of day but it's difficult getting too excited knowing how strong and tight this is in its current state. That Steven Spielberg and Will Smith were originally attached to this project is perplexing, as if either would ever compromise their squeeky clean images or bank accounts by tackling it. But it's even more doubtful they'd be able to read the last few pages without fainting, calling for changes that would neuter the entire project before cameras even started rolling. Nothing Lee does here feels sanitized and the eighty or ninety something percent who haven't seen the original will be shocked out of their minds a mainstream studio released it. For the rest, its biggest crime is being a remake of Oldboy.