Oldboy (2013)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/27/13 08:30:13

"Not Exactly A Walk In The Park"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Ever since it was announced that "Oldboy," South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook's internationally successful screen adaptation of the popular Japanese manga, was being prepared for an English-language remake, fans of its previous iterations have wondered how a tale filled with such brutality, both physical and emotional, could possibly make it through the Hollywood studio system without losing much of the darkness that made it such a memorably unpleasant experience. After years of false starts (including a period in which it was being conceived as a Will Smith vehicle), the Americanized version has finally arrived, courtesy of no less of a filmmaker than Spike Lee, and I can assure you that it is just as bleak and bloody as the original. The question that most people should have been asking is not how an American "Oldboy" could be made but rather why such a thing should be made in the first place. This is a query that the film never quite manages to answer satisfactorily and the result is a film that isn't so much a bad movie (though Lord knows it isn't very good) as much as it is a staggeringly pointless one.

Opening in 1993, the film stars Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett, a hard-drinking advertising executive with a talent for making a mess out of every aspect of his life thanks to his boozing--he snatches defeat from the jaws of victory at work, his ex-wife hates his guts and he basically ignores the existence of his toddler daughter. After one epic night of drinking, Joe wakes up in the morning in what appears to be an ordinary motel room until it finally dawns on him that the amenities do not include a telephone, a window or a way out. The room is, in fact, a prison and while the people holding him provide a daily supply of vodka and cheap Chinese food, they refuse to answer any questions about who they are or what they want with Joe.

This goes on for exactly 20 years (cue the news footage of 9/11 and Katrina) until Joe just as mysteriously wakes up inside a trunk in a field with a hefty wad of cash, a cell phone and still not a single clue as to what has been happening to him. At this point, professional courtesy--not to mention the non-disclosure agreement I was required to sign before attending the press screening--dictates that I reveal nothing of what transpires next in terms of the plot. I will, however, mention that he soon encounters Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a good-hearted type who seems oddly willing to drop everything in her life in an instant in order to help out a perfect stranger on his bizarre quest and Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who runs a business that provides services of a very specialized nature. Eventually, Joe comes across a mysterious man (Sharlto Copley) who seems to have all the answers that Joe is looking for and his willing to provide them, not to mention a huge reward, if Joe can supply a couple of answers of his own within a very limited time frame.

For those of you who have seen the previous version of "Oldboy," this will all sound familiar enough and indeed, with a couple of minor exceptions here and there (such as the deletion of our hero's memorable first meal upon his release, though an in-joke reference to it does crop up), it sticks pretty closely to that blueprint and that is one of the key problems with this version. Instead of figuring out a way of transforming the material into something that could plausibly play out on the streets of New Orleans, Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich are content to change the setting and little else and what had already begun to stretch the bounds of credulity the first time around now comes across as both unlikely and ridiculous. The two also demonstrate a remarkable lack of subtlety throughout--instead of the ambiguity that added an extra level of disquiet to the proceedings (especially in the final moments), the two overplay things to such a heavy-handed degree that the whole thing becomes silly at precisely the moment when it should be anything but. (If you can get through the flashback to an Eighties-era prep school without bursting out into incredulous giggles at its sheer ineptness, you are a stronger moviegoer than I). Speaking of silly, while the performances by Brolin and Olsen are both good (the latter is especially impressive in making a real character out of someone who could have simply been a plot device), Sharlto Copley's uber-fey turn as the stranger at the heart of the story--imagine someone doing their impression of Bill Hader doing his impression of Vincent Price on "SNL"--is so ridiculous that it boggles the mind that anyone involved could have considered it to be a good idea.

At least with the original, Chan was able to skirt around the plausibility factor by investing the material with such a distinctive cinematic style that one could easily overlook the essentially lunatic nature of the story. By comparison, Lee, usually one of the most distinctive filmmakers working today, never quite manages to find the right stylistic approach to the material. Instead, he offers up a take that vaguely resembles the works of David Fincher but which lacks the obsessive nature that makes his grim thrillers so startling to behold. Lee's work here is competent enough but after a while, you get the sense that he is simply going through the motions here. Granted, the end result may not plunge the depths of such total Lee calamities as "She Hate Me" and "Miracle at Santa Ana" but there is an air of indifference to the proceedings that is hard to shake, even though the very notion of an indifferent version of "Oldboy" sounds like an impossibility. Frankly, that is the only surprise on display here.

For moviegoers who have experienced the story before in one of its previous versions, this "Oldboy" will come across as painfully unnecessary--instead of tossing a few new twists into the mix in order to make it unique, it merely replicates what has already been seen and proves that while it knows how to restage its most memorable moments, it has no real idea as to what made them worth remembering in the first place. Those who come to the story with fresh eyes may indeed be surprised by the shocking developments on display but may be too put off by their relatively lackluster presentation to care very much about any of them. Sometimes when a talented director decides to take on a remake of a popular film, the results can be just as strong, smart and inventive as the originals--witness such classics as David Cronenberg's "The Fly," John Carpenter's "The Thing" and the recent revision of the Mexican cannibalism drama "We Are What We Are." This version of "Oldboy," however, is not one of them.

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