DM Haight

Spike Lee’s 2013 remake of the notorious South Korean thriller, Oldboy, has a lot going for it. Josh Brolin, for one, has an outstanding presence in the role of Joe, a drunken salesman who is imprisoned, seemingly without reason, for 20 years. Just like in the original. Elizabeth Olsen also does an outstanding job as Joe’s partner, trying to uncover the individual who imprisoned him. Even Samuel L. Jackson makes a memorable appearance as a glorified, mohawked warden of an exclusive prison. So how, with all this talent, and with all the material in the world to work with, does this movie fail?

You see, when you first watch the 2003 Park Chan-wook Oldboy, you understand that the film’s protagonist, Oh Dae-su, played by Choi Min-sik, is a lost soul–drunk, belligerent, arrogant, disheveled, but caring in a drunken, belligerent way. When he’s imprisoned you know when he gets out he’ll be changed, but not necessarily for the better. Josh Brolin’s Joe is also drunken, belligerent, and arrogant. Unfortunately, he doesn’t care about anything until his sudden imprisonment, where he immediately begins to have a sickeningly deep love and affection for his daughter. This is not the film’s first draw back, but starting the film with a character who has no redeeming qualities, one whom I’m glad to see behind bars, mentally tortured, and self-abusive…Well, I guess I can’t root for that person to get out, no matter how much he wants to see his kid.

Brolin does an otherwise outstanding job playing Joe, so I won’t complain about a stellar actor doing the best with the hand he’s dealt. But I can be disappointed in Spike Lee, who completely lost the point of the Korean classic. How can a man with Lee’s accolades find it safe to make a film like Oldboy? Ultra-violent, sadistic, taboo–those are the words that should have defined the film. It should have been a controversial film for American audiences; one with artistic integrity, a gritty bite, and a more than unsettling, gory finale. Instead we get a violent, goofy, taboo-esk hour and forty-five of mutterings and grumblings of failures and shoulda-coulda-wouldas.

Lee managed to tame down one of the films that defined world cinema in the early 2000s. It’s the film that ignited the explosion of South Korean Cinema in the west. I don’t care about producers or actors or even script writers—Lee has the credentials to do almost anything in his power to make a film great and still maintain the balance of appeasing all the aforementioned. How does he drop the ball?

Never before have I found myself hating Sharlto Copley. He’s a fantastic actor and has his place in film. Being selected as an English CEO, who’s more dainty than a daisy, spouting off a campy accent and bossing around a martial arts specialist is more than just cliché, it’s insulting to the audience. I wanted to stop watching, but I had to make it to the train wreck of an ending.

Again, I’ll refer to the original, not because I like comparing films, but because one of these two was done right, and the other was done wrong. Oh Dae-su, upon uncovering the situation he had put himself in, chose to sacrifice himself to make amends, and to save the life he made after his release. He took away what had forced him into the messy life he suffered through, and when the film was ready to close, he made a second choice to eliminate the consciousness that knew his transgressions in favor of a clean slate. Joe, on the other hand, puts on a good cry, watches Copley blast away his brains, and then proceeds to elect further torment. The reason for the continued punishment is understandable. I mean, who could knowingly live with that? Probably not many. But the fact remains that Joe’s character is allowed to make an ass out of himself when he should be redeemed. The ending, instead of being somber, controlled, and saddening, is distressingly formulaic, overdone, moronic, and unimpressive. Unlike its predecessor, Spike Lee’s Oldboy not only underwhelms, it also goes to show that American studios cannot yet be trusted with foreign source materials.

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