Doing the Wrong Thing
Spike Lee's version of Oldboy gets lost in translation
There are likely two main audiences for Spike Lee’s new film, Oldboy: those who are fans of the director’s films and can’t wait to see what he does next, and fans of the original Korean film, hoping the American version does the first one justice. Neither group is likely to be satisfied.
The film follows Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a man who seems to be living a normal, if wasted, life until he’s kidnapped and forced to live in a room with no door, windows or communication to the outside world. Twenty years later, he’s released under similarly mysterious circumstances, intent on finding not only his captor but also the daughter he left behind.
If you essentially tell the viewers what’s going to happen next, there’s little to keep them invested in the story as a whole.
Joe is helped along the way by Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen), a volunteer healthcare worker who takes a shine to him, and longtime friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli). But every layer he uncovers seems to bring him no closer to his goal, and time is running out.
The central mystery of the film is solid, and one that Lee teases out effectively while Joe remains in his undeserved prison. Once Joe is set loose in the world again, though, Lee has more difficulty maintaining the same tone.
Lee's biggest issue here is that he telegraphs a couple of revelation, including the major shocker of the entire film, too obviously. If you essentially tell viewers what’s going to happen next, there’s little to keep them invested in the story as a whole.
The other big sticking poin is related to do what kind of audience Lee is trying to serve with his remake. Although Lee has never shied away from violence, the ultraviolence found in Oldboy is a specific signature of Asian cinema. The director's attempts to replicate that fall short because they tend to come out of nowhere, giving them little context and little purpose.
Brolin does a decent job in the lead role, but he’s undone by a lack of effective makeup techniques. If the filmmakers can’t be bothered to a) use different actors for periods 20 years apart or b) properly age the actor who portrays both periods, it makes it difficult to go along for the ride or believe his performance all the way through.
Olsen, Imperioli, Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley all have some interesting moments, but they too are done in by a story that collapses under its own weight. Copley, so effective in District 9 and Elysium, devolves into caricature as the film goes along.
Oldboy is neither a great entry into Lee’s canon nor an effective remake of the original Korean version. As such, it sits in sort of a middle ground, finding a space where it’s likely to be forgotten almost as soon as it hits the theaters.