Saturday, 7 December 2013

Film Review: Oldboy (2013)

Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Mark Protosevich
Stars: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson

Forget comparisons with Park Chan-Wook’s cult favourite of the same name from 2003, and the questions around why remake it; let’s judge Spike Lee’s version of Oldboy on its own merits. It’s a different cast, a different setting, and aimed at a different audience; but the lasting impression of Lee’s film is just how dreadfully dull and routine it ends up becoming, after a promising start.

The first act is solid as we meet Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), an all round screw up who is kidnapped in 1993 and locked in a room for two decades, forced to eat the same few takeaway meals over and over again whilst he watched the events of the world unfold on a TV set. We have an intriguing premise, Josh Brolin is holding our attention in a make or break performance, and it’s not something we see in the usual Hollywood thriller. So far so good, and even if you’ve seen the 2003 original there’s nothing so far to suggest this remake is inferior.

Then Doucett is released and the film rapidly loses control in every way possible; what was once an edgy and dark story plays out as just another standard thriller with the same genre beats we’ve seen countless times before. In what universe does Spike Lee think his audience will be fully immersed in a story where we watch characters using Google to do their detective work and in which an iPhone is used consistently to find information. Yes, this is a first world country in the year 2013 and we’re all used to doing the same thing as we see on screen, but in no way does that translate into an effective thriller. Very few things can bore an audience to distraction more than watching a character using the Shazam app and Google maps, yet Oldboy is proud to show us just how dull a thriller can quickly become. Moreover, when the film isn’t relying on Google to plug the gaps, we are forced to watch characters looking at old newspapers and school yearbooks whilst scene after scene is presented for no other than an exposition outpour. The final act was little else than characters telling us what happened in the past and Spike Lee expecting us to give a damn.

The relationship between Doucett and Marie Sebastain, a 20-something girl he meets (literally because the ridiculous storyline demands it and for no other reason) is woefully clunky and by pure happenstance. The film never makes us believe they would get together and get involved in this detective story, and all the time it’s part of the grand plan which makes the entire story seem utterly unbelievable. And whilst I mention the grand plan of the man who locked Doucett away for those 20 years, Sharlto Copley as Adrian is brutally bad and derails every scene he is in; whoever decided he should act and talk the way he does here needed to be reeled in after the first dailies were seen because he is off the scale terribly with every line and mannerism. It’s like he is in a totally different film and Spike Lee should have had the foresight to see just how terrible this performance was going to look. With his performances in Elyisum and now this, Copley has to be considered for the worst actor of the year.

If Copley, the screenwriting-by-numbers dialogue, and the attempts to bore the audience to death with Apple products doing all the hard work are this bad, then we must come full circle to my earlier point; why remake Oldboy? I should start by saying I don’t care too much for Park Chan-Wook’s film other than just liking it and it’s not something so sacred to me that I was outraged by the news of a remake. The concept of a man being held prisoner in a room for 20 years without an inclining as to why only to be suddenly released could take that character and story in countless different directions, so why the need to stick to the original story yet still change parts? Why couldn’t Spike Lee’s Oldboy be a totally different tale than Park Chan-Wook’s? The ‘shocking’ conclusion and story to Park Chan-Wook’s film didn’t satisfy me and I never found it to be a gripping tale, and the same is true for this remake but I question how audiences will respond with an American cast; there was something about watching such a sick plot taking place in a different culture which perhaps gave Park Chan-Wook’s film an overall pass but in Lee’s hands it just come across as dumb, convoluted, and utterly silly.

Park Chan-Wook’s film is famous for its fight sequence where one man armed with a hammer takes on many men in a tight corridor; the scene is original, one take, and fits with the style and tone of the rest of the film but wasn’t necessary to drive the plot, it just looked great. In Lee’s film we also get that scene and it serves no purpose other than to connect the two films; if Lee wanted to make this his own film, why include this sequence? Why use a hammer again? Why do it in one take? The scene was special to Park Chan-Wook but here it’s just imitation.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: Therein lies the problem with Oldboy; as its own entity is one third of an interesting film and two thirds a dull thriller without the thrills. As a remake it’s clearly inferior and never sells the story which made gave the original its originality. So what was the point?

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