Director: Spike Lee
Written: Mark Protosevich
Hollywood is not foreign cinema, but everything else is. That’s the attitude you develop in Lithuania, since most of what you see is made in America, and everything else looks bland and strange in comparison. The less said about the local cinema industry, the better. So, when someone mentions Asian movies, it’s mostly in the context of foreign cinema. And everybody knows that foreign cinema is all about art, drama and other things that don’t involve lasers, explosions, tanks or exploding laser tanks. As such, I used to reject Asian cinema as violently as I would a Swedish movie about black orphans with AIDS who all work in heroin plants or something. But eventually you feel the need or the urge to maybe try and watch something. That something can very easily be “Oldboy“, because it’s a name you’ve heard so many times. And it’s a nice enough Korean flick to watch, supposedly one of the few entry level movies that, say, Americans are exposed to. And so they had to make their own version. This, esteemed ladies and gentlemen of the Internet, is the 2013 remake of “Oldboy”.
In the original, we met Oh Daesu, the future kidnappee, as he was being an affable drunk in a police station. Then he got snatched within first five minutes of the movie. And it was mercifully short introduction that, nevertheless, endeared us to the character. In the remake, though, Joe is a raging alcoholic ad executive who spikes his own coffee, gets to work drunk, calls his wife a whore on the phone, doesn’t give two shits about his infant daughter’s birthday, hits on his clients wife (and gets shot down most wonderfully), gets drunk, vomits on himself, and then finally gets kidnapped.
The drunk scene is also the worst of Josh Brolin I’ve ever seen. It’s not Shatnerian; it’s an alien infiltrator robot pretending to be drunk human who’s pretending to be Shatner.
Much like nobody remembers what happened in “Full Metal Jacket“ after the boot camp, so is the imprisonment a very important part of “Oldboy“. There is mystery in who kidnapped our protagonist and why was he placed in a hotel room for 15 years (20 in the remake, because, uh…).Park Chan-Wook did a masterful job with it, showing it in medias res (we go straight from the snatch to a month later), combining Oh Daesu’s narration, recurring visual themes, camera angles and all that cinematography jazz to show it in an interesting light.
Spike Lee, however, has a less mature vision, filled with localized plot holes, overused tropes and almost straight up insults to the viewer’s intelligence. Why is the shower turned and curtains drawn when Joe wakes up in prison? For some sort of fake out directed towards both the character and the viewer. Why is Joe covering his crotch with a pillow? Because this isn’t exactly an art movie, so we can’t show any pee-pees, yet the director can’t be bothered to come up with other visual cues than the blindly obvious.
Another extremely specific thing about it is that while Mr. Park made a wonderful juxtapositionof Oh Daesu’s efforts to dig his way out of imprisonment and televised historical events, Mr. Lee thinks the viewer is stupid. That’s why each televised event has a helpful date at the bottom of the screen, even though news channels never do that (who needs to know the year when it’s a live broadcast?) and people can probably remember when Clinton was in power or when 9/11 happened.
The same kind of boring, uninspired approach is applied to Joe’s character arc, too. Because we need him to be less of an ass, he sees a TV show about his daughter and decides that now he loves her and has to become a better man. That’s why he stops drinking – cold turkey, at that – and starts writing her exposition letters and doing weight lifting with stacked encyclopedias. His plan is to take all those letters with him when he escapes and thus convince the daughter that he didn’t rape and murder her mother (the jail keepers framed him for that, too).
Of course, that kind of redemption is hard to swallow when one of the first things he does once free is demolish an entire college football team because one of them punched him. We need this to establish that he’s a badass now (that shadow boxing paid off), yet the implications for his character are being overlooked. Then again, none of the characters in the movie are real personalities or even that believable: his high school buddy bar owner Chucky immediately buys the story of the imprisonment, while nurse Marie is not only overtly friendly, and takes the same hook, but also becomes one of his greatest companions. Even getting nearly raped doesn’t dissuade or stop her from jumping his bones later on.
It gets even worse with Sharlto Copley’s Adrian, the main villain who always tries to pull of the smug oh-so-smart aristocratic kid, all pretention and fancy words. In the original, Oh Daesu accidentally discovered the villain and his sister having some incestuous fun (everyone was school age), spread rumors and then changed school, thus no knowing that it all ended in the sis killing herself. Here, Joe –a teen alkie (already?!) –does the same… but here it’s her father, not her brother, and the family is forced to move country (that’s old money for you). Eventually the father snaps and kills all the family in the most absurd tracking shot incest exposition scene ever. Both Adrian and her sister call out “father” in their best British noble scion voices and almost lunge at his cock before being shot. This is the kind of incest family that redneck jokes are made of. If someone had jumped out and shouted “The Aristocrats!” that would have been a fitting ending for the scene.
The movie isn’t that good at attempts on humor, either. Both, the original and the remake prisoner, get fed Chinese dumplings during incarceration and use the taste to track down the supplying restaurant and find the jail. Only we get to witness how “hilariously” disgusted Joe is with Chinese cooking, as healways has take them out of his mouth with his fingers. Yes, putting in more charm on the character there! Another point is where a guard goon doing a crossword asks for the pseudonym of Edmond Dantes before Joe gives the answer and hammers him dead.
Ah, the goon fight. It’s shot nowhere near as well as the one in the original, which was tightly framed by a cut away of a seedy prison corridor. Here it’s exchanged for a parking garage, making for much less impactful visuals. But, as we established, visuals aren’t this movies strong suit: much of the early movie reminded me of “Punisher: Warzone“, which, while a glorious B-movie, didn’t exactly enjoy the same funding and talent as “Oldboy”. The goon fight scene is also jarring since, up to that point, the jailors were all dressed in smart suits. Now, it’s a bunch of hobos and thugs armed with pipes, 2x4s and the rare knife.
In America – the gun capital of the world – where statistically everyone has a gun.
So in the end, the fight scene is shot the worst, breaks away from both the real and movie world, and, to top it all off, ends up with the most ignored down-to-the-hilt knife stabbing in movie history. Yet that’s par for the course, because the movie wants us to swallow not only that Joe has changed (character arcs are a mythical fable that escapes most mainstream movies, especially in Hollywood), is a good fighter, can chase down – undetected – an SUV on a small, bright bicycle, or ignore knives in his back. No, we also have to believe that Adrian knew which motel room would Joe and Marie take so he could watch them boning on CCTV. Or that Adrian spent twenty years molding Marie – who turns out to be the real daughter of Joe – via selected people in her life into someone who’d give out number to random hobos and help them on their life’s quest.
My guess is that the script writer didn’t think that the American public would swallow the hypnosis ending of the original and such elaborate plans will be found to be more plausible.
The rewards that Adrian promised Joe for finding out who he is and why he imprisoned Joe, included evidence of Joe being innocent of his wife’s murder and rape (Adrian filmed himself doing it), Adrian’s suicide and 20 million dollars in diamonds, because why the hell not? They’re also needed for a happy ending: Joe writes one last letter to Marie (who’s oblivious of her true identity), leaves her some money and pays the rest to be kept in the jail room… permanently, I guess. The movie ends up with him smiling and me frowning.
“Oldboy” doesn’t really add anything to the original, doesn’t present any new and interesting points, and isn’t crafted that well. It splashed about some star power (including a totally unnecessary appearance of Samuel L. Jackson), it changed it to be more palatable to the public and it watered down the ending so much, there’s only trace particles of the original left.