“... Where Park Chan-Wook's Was An Exquisitely Precise Period Of Punctuation, Lee's Is An Exclamation Point Of Thoughtless Happenstance...”
December 14th, 2013
Of all filmdom, there are few categories which carry such a negative stigma as remakes. For many, a remake signifies an element of hubris on the filmmaker's part; the audacity that they could somehow make better what most would consider already perfect. For others, a remake offers a new outlook on what came before it; paying homage while contributing something possibly new. Few and far between are the noteworthy revisions, but they do exist. A few include John Carpenter's THE THING, the 80's version of THE BLOB, Alexander Aja's THE HILLS HAVE EYES, The American adaption of THE RING and Breck Eisner's take on THE CRAZIES. However, for all of the worthwhile additions to fan favorites, there are typically dozens which drive the word "remake" into an abyss of dread and disappointment. PROM NIGHT, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13TH, TOTAL RECALL and I'm willing to put money on it--the new ROBOCOP (which has now been tarnished with a PG-13 rating). Really, the issue comes down to respect. The hope that the filmmaker has reverence for the source material--that he might do right by it. Most of the time, such films are strictly monetary exploitations of a new and naïve generation. Sometimes though. . . Just sometimes, a remake can work even stronger than when it was originally committed to celluloid.
Spike Lee's OLDBOY is not one of these times.
2013's OLDBOY stars Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett; a drunkard, liar and all-around asshole that finds himself abducted and housed in a small studio apartment for twenty years with no apparent reason. During his imprisonment, he's shown news footage detailing the murder-rape of his ex-wife and the adoption of his daughter. Much like the original's, Oh Dae-Su, Frank undergoes an evolution of humanity as he begins to strengthen himself physically and mentally; gradually preparing for his inevitable escape. And then, just as he's about to break from his prison--he's released. Given money, a suit and a cellphone, Frank receives a call from a mysterious antagonist informing him that he only has a limited time to discover why it was that he was imprisoned and ultimately set free.
The big problem with Spike Lee's vision (which is oddly enough now labeled a "film" instead of a "joint") is that it feels utterly flavorless and completely inconsequential. Beyond one or two things, Lee has done nothing to truly separate his from Park Chan-Wook's masterpiece. The location for instance isn't set within the industrial confines of a heavily populated city this time around, but New Orleans. However, one would never gauge this from the environments or shot composition. Until I informed my girlfriend otherwise, she believed it was established in New York City. Lee makes NO use of anything more than typical city streets, buildings and alleys to convey the story which negates any characterization the film's locale could have played. Furthering this is Lee's lackadaisical shot formations which additionally dull the film's visuals. Unlike Park Chan Wook's visionary take on such material (in which EVERY shot was akin to its own photograph) Lee's cinematography and camera work are passive, drab and instituted as if they were on stand-by from the outset.
Where Park Chan-Wook commanded the screen with flawless direction, subtle black humor and twisted, yet sustained bouts of brutality, Lee is the exact opposite. There is no poetry to Lee's vision; no delicacy. There are no ruminations on the concept of revenge or meditations on the dilemmas which coincide with such ideals of vigilante justice. Honestly, EVERYTHING that made the original OLDBOY so majestic a film, has been stripped and patch-worked by people with NO concept of why such an ode to revenge worked in the first place.
Take for instance one of the most iconic sequences from the original: the eating of a live octopus. This moment was commemorative in the original due to the REASON it was occurring. It was the first meal following Oh Dae-Su's release and he states to the itamae that he wants to "Eat something alive". It was a grisly and metaphorical moment that foreshadowed the destruction to come. In Lee's, we get to see the octopus in an aquarium. . . Really? That's all? This scene, like many others, feel like Lee elbowing the viewer before winking at them--as if making a desperate attempt to inform the viewer that, "See! I saw the first one too!" Okay, so what did you do with the archetypal material? You just showed it to us again, except this time, you utterly castrated both its shock and meaning.
And then there's the fight. . . You know the one I'm talking about. . . THE fight.
In the original, this dollied sequence of jaw-dropping awesomeness was delivered in a single take that sincerely made the audience feel as though they were watching a real brawl. This solitary moment is an epic feat of filmmaking that deserves to be notarized as one of the best action scenes of all time. It's a instance devoid of elegant choreography, cartoonish colors and CGI. Like the weapon Oh Dae-Su wields, blunt, packs a wallop and is just long enough to get the job done and the point conveyed. The fight carries on in a glorious display of bone-breaking and sees our antihero tripping over fallen instruments of death (unplanned) and even taking a knife to the back. The pitch of dark humor which follows on the elevator furthers the genius of it all.
And then there's Lee's version which feels blatantly choreographed as attackers wait their obvious turns and telegraph their movements from miles away so that Brolin might toss them when need be. Unlike Park's version, in which Oh Dae-Su's death fault plausible, Lee's reinforces that our Joe is practically unstoppable; almost inhuman--an element that it applies and forgets whenever it's convenient for the story (Joe can take on dozens of thugs at once, but fails nearly every time after this to best his attackers? Continuity much?). Lee tries to employ a second level to the duel, but again, it just doesn't really offer anything when the fight feels so fake and organized. The sloppiness of the original's fight WAS one of the many reasons that it was beloved in the first place. Even the ol' "knife in the back" is displayed in such a half-assed way that it's as if Lee shot the scene and forgot to add it and thus, tossed it in at the last moment. And somehow, even the elevator moment has been failed here.
As for the story, those wondering about the original's dark 'lil secret should know that it's all in place here, but feels utterly forced and misguided with an additional piece of grim placed atop it all. Instead of the twist gut-punching the viewer, it feels exaggerated and desperate, as if they were simply trying to one-up the "ick" factor of the original. Worse, is that Sharlto Copley's take on OLDBOY's villain is utterly erroneous and confused. While I dig the actor, his performance and the character he portrays (deemed, "The Stranger") juxtaposes the seriousness with a comical attitude akin to a cartoon villain. His look and demeanor are laughable and his outbursts of violence feel obligatory--not natural.
Portions of Lee's OLDBOY do possess an entertaining factor, but not in the methodical, thinking-man's way. Everything is projected with a typical action mindset that serves only to satisfy the primal aspects of violence and ill-advised intrepidity. Nothing's supposed to have meat or substance. To its credit, Josh Brolin is fantastic as a brooding machine of death searching for redemption. However, where Oh Dae-Su covered the absolute gamut of emotion and exhibited an insane range of catharsis, Brolin seems to have only been instructed to sulk, glare and become angry. Brolin has give it his all, but Lee should have known better than to put the film's weight solely on his shoulders. He needed to actually give a damn too. Hell, not even the word "Oldboy" is even referenced herein or given meaning as it was in the native form.
There's so much wrong with this film beyond the fact that it's a remake. Lee has seemingly directed this film out of pride and to help finance the passion projects he actually wants to do (as some circulating rumors are hinting). OLDBOY was not a film that needed to be remade, nor should anyone have wanted to remake. It was an experience all its own that simply couldn't be replicated. Spielberg knew this. Lee has done nothing to warrant such a revision and has offered nothing artistic or truly compelling with tools he was given. Where Park Chan-Wook's was an exquisitely precise period of punctuation, Lee's is an exclamation point of thoughtless happenstance.