Twenty Years Trapped, Free to Find the Truth
Oldboy is an adaptation directed by Spike Lee. I mention this from the very start because if no ending credits appeared on screen, you probably wouldn’t have known otherwise. In essence, this is not a famous Spike Lee “joint,” but a film that happens to be directed by Spike Lee. This usually is at least a subtle difference, but here, unfortunately, the gap is gaping.
There is inherent difficulty trying to replicate work from an auteur, especially work that contains a major twist. Those who have seen Park Chan-Wook’s 2003 original film know its dramatic plot turn, its dark pervasive atmosphere, and eerie sense of mystery. They will also find this pulpy, kinetic reincarnation ultimately pointless. This is not to say all remakes have no worth or anything new to say, but that Lee simply has trouble with the latter. It hits its predecessor’s plot points pace for pace, jumbling a few events and images here and there. It’s a connect-the-dots picture and each line is perfectly straight.
Our main character is Joe Ducett (Josh Brolin), an unforgiving drunk who sips alcohol everyday, womanizes, and stumbles around a 1993 quasi-New York City. He’s quickly kidnapped for no apparent reason and locked into a prison cell masking as a motel room where he spends the next twenty years of his life. A daily meal of vodka and dumplings slides under his door, his only companions a security camera and television set. He watches increments of time pass from the box’s glare- President Clinton reciting his oath, the World Trade Center collapse, Hurricane Katrina. If anything, these are mostly plot progressions rather than cultural shifts of significance.
He is finally released into the 21st century but seems rather unfazed by its wireless landscape except for a few Internet tutorials. His perplexing state and paranoia is severely underwritten. Twenty years might as well be twenty hours. In his cell, he was framed for murdering his wife. His baby daughter has been adopted. Ducett is preoccupied with why he was captured, but disregards his captor’s- and the film’s- larger question: Why was he released? These questions will ultimately come to haunt him, specifically under the nefarious watch of a blonde-Mohawked Samuel L. Jackson and a slimy Sharlto Copley.
In pursuit of unknown family and evils, Ducett seeks asylum with his old friend Chucky (Michael Imperiloi) and grows attached to a young doctor Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) who treats his wounds and anxieties. She aids Ducett on his sinister scavenger hunt to find clues about his daughter, motivated more by vengeance than reconnection. Brolin is a fine actor but struggles to convey a frantic method, and Olsen unfortunately offers little, critical support. Much more visceral is Brolin’s confined persona, muscling his claustrophobic surroundings with a passion that often eludes this film.
It’s not as though Lee doesn’t hold back. He is intent to show lacerations and their skin splitting process. He keeps Chan-Wook’s hallway hammer scene, a comically gory single take of karate-infused fighting that ends on an elevator with a punch line of unconscious bodies. But where Chan-Wook implied most of this gut spilling, Lee literalizes everything. Oldboy’s screenplay was adapted by Mark Protosevich and is based off the manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi. The alterations are tidy but gruesome, small but meaningfully cataclysmic. What should end in shudders is curiously tame.
This movie is about shock and mystery and searching. Its brutality needs to be matched by its mental destruction. There is no urgency here, no creeping sense of disaster that slowly erupts by its mind-bending end. Inside Man and 25th Hour were both directed by Lee with separate writers and they still clutched at Lee’s scope of post 9/11 uncertainties. They made you feel something in their atmospheric, race-infused ambiguities. This won’t make you feel anything but disgust. Part of this is by nature of the film’s premise, the other from Lee’s uninspired vision.
It begs the question. Why? Why was this movie remade? It makes the central narrative question “Why was Joe Ducett released?” merely unimportant.
- Spike Lee makes ‘Oldboy’ safe(r) for US audiences (sacbee.com)
- Review: Spike Lee reveals a new side in ‘Oldboy’ (latimes.com)
- Film Review: ‘Oldboy’ (variety.com)
- ‘Oldboy’ Review: Besides Josh Brolin, Spike Lee’s Cult Classic Remake Adds Little That’s New (thewrap.com)