Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a fast-tracked advertising executive who is inexplicably shanghaied an imprisoned in a motel room. The years pass, 20 of them, and, just as inexplicably, Joe is released from his prison cell. Now, he has to find the answer to the question – why was he imprisoned? – in “Oldboy" on Blu-ray.
Recalling the 2003 original of “Oldboy,” by Chan-Wook Park, I am struck by the shallow remake, helmed by Spike Lee, of what is a complex and disturbing character study. The new “Oldboy,” adapted by Mark Protosevich, is a shell of the manga-influenced Korean film.
This “Oldboy” has the same problem as the original – the why of Joe’s decades long incarceration is delivered abruptly at the very end of the film. And, the reason for the imprisonment seems almost a whimsy by the puppeteer, Adrian (Sharlto Copley), as does the reason for Joe’s revenge plans.
Production design (Sharon Seymour) and art direction (Peter Borck) are first rate – from Joe’s comfy prison to the garage ramps where Joe metes out punishment to his many attackers. Which brings me to ramp fight – why, when outnumbering a single opponent, do the bad guys always attack one by one instead of en masse? I shouted, in my mind, why the hell don’t you guys just rush the hero all at once and get it over with. (“Kill Bill Vol. 1” did not makes this common logic mistake with such action films by having members of the 88s attack the Bride all at once. And, she dispatches them all at once.) The original made the same action movie mistake as the remake.
So, we have a mediocre remake being released on Blu-ray and the extras are better than the film itself. Included on the disc are an extensive “Making of…” feature, a transformation feature that shows Joe over the years in his prison, a tongue-in-cheek workout video of Joe getting buff in prison cell and the requisite talking heads interviews. The best of the extras, though, is the extended and alternate scenes feature. The garage ramp fight, in particular, gives us an extended look at the far too trimmed edit that is used in the film. The fight choreography and the one-take, fluid camera work make me wonder why it was cut down so much in the final edit. Other scenes, too, are better in their extended versions than what is in the final product. I give the film a C+ and the extras a B.
Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is an alcoholic, womanizing sleaze of a salesman who's enraged his ex-wife by skipping his daughter's 4th birthday to save his job with a client meeting. After upending his own success at dinner by insulting his client's girlfriend, he stumbles around town, stopping to buy his girl a gift at a street vendor's. The next day he awakens in a strange hotel room from which he cannot escape. Twenty years later, he escapes, hellbent on revenge as an "Oldboy."
It was a bit of a mystery as to why Spike Lee decided to remake Park Chan-wook's Korean cult thriller, but it works to a degree as a stylistic exercise in violence and the study of a man transformed by twenty years (vs. the original's fifteen) in solitary confinement. It's too bad that in the end, much of its twisted plotting plays so shallowly, the film's shorter running time not giving a central relationship enough time to breath. The blu-ray's features suggest that Lee made a better film than what was released theatrically, with (studio mandated?) cuts crippling it.
Lee spends more of his remake's lesser length establishing Joe's loutish behavior before the man's stuck in a drab room with interesting accents (a retro bellhop poster, a changing pictorial backdrop), repetitive dining options (Chinese meat dumplings) and occasional gassings. As his corporate haircut and flabby body give way to wild hair and toned abs via vigorous workouts, Joe and the audience view the passage of time via significant news events on TV (most notably, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina). He also learns his wife's been murdered and he's the only suspect. Years later an update on the case presents his daughter, now adopted, as an accomplished cellist.
After chiseling away at the wall of his bathroom, Joe is able to get out and finds himself climbing out of a steamer trunk in a grassy field. In the distance is the same woman with a giant yellow umbrella (with 20 counted out in four red groupings, just like the tattoo now embellishing his arm) who walked by that vending cart twenty years earlier, but loses her. Instead he finds a young woman, Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen, "Martha Marcy May Marlene"), who tries to help him outside a mobile clinic. When Joe turns up at his old buddy Chucky's ('The Sopranos'' Michael Imperioli) bar and collapses, Chucky finds Marie's card in his hand and calls her. Marie, a former addict, believe Joe's incredible story and vows to help him clear his name.
Lee nods to the original with touches like the octopus in a tank in one of the many restaurants Joe visits trying to identify those dumplings he ate thousands of. When he tracks them back to the man who kept him prisoner all those years, it's a mohawked Sam Jackson attired in Asian garb, but a brutal torture scene later and Joe's no closer to figuring out at whose behest Chaney was paid to jail him. Adrian (Sharlto Copley, "District 9"), accompanied by that mysterious woman (Pom Klementieff), unveils himself at Chucky's, telling Joe he'll reunite him with his daughter, sign a murder confession and put a bullet in his own head if Joe can tell him why he did it. But the more important question will be why he let him go.
Lee's conclusion draws out the explanation more than necessary while his accelerated build up of Adrian's ultimate plan makes it obvious, diminishing its shock. But he does add his own little capping twist that plays like it's always been there. The paring of Copley and Klementieff suggests "The Crow's" villainous Michael Wincott and Bai Ling, adding subtext to the film's incestuous theme. Brolin ramps up his performance from boorish to raging bull (be prepared for unbarred brutality). It's an intriguing, if ultimately unsatisfactory, revamp of the manga.
Until, that is, one gets to the blu-ray's special features. I don't recall a selection of alternate and deleted scenes in which each and every one feel unnecessarily excised. The single take, tri-level hammer fight scene is bravura filmmaking (some soft choreography notwithstanding). An extended take on Adrian at home leading to a major reveal gains loads of atmosphere with Sean Bobbit's ("12 Years a Slave") camera coiling about his ultra modern floor plan and Jackson ups the ante on his freak fly when we see the original conversation only heard in playback in the movie. A featurette provides a feel for what it's like to work on Lee's set while also shining a light on the efforts expended on the film's rigorous stunt work. A 'workout video' is an amusing edit that works as mini-movie commentary.
The movie gets a B-. The blu-ray and its features get a B+.
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