Friday, January 3, 2014

Oldboy (2013)

**1/2 out of ****

Spike Lee’s version of Oldboy, –or as I am calling it, Newboy –is a faithful remake of the now ten-year-old Korean film, which still holds high status as a cult film and a highlight of Asian cinema. I still hold on to the feeling that the remaking of great foreign films by Americans is a shameful thing. People who refuse to deal with subtitles don’t deserve the movies they choose to ignore. When you consider the international splash that American movies make, our tendency to filter the well-executed concepts of other countries through the remake system, makes us look like jerks.

This doesn’t stop these remakes from being good. I though David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was pretty great. However, a good amount of them are simply decent, yet forgettable. Even though this particular one falls in the middle, it is still admirably true to the original story, while changing up most of the details in order to tell it differently.

Both versions follow a man who is kidnapped and held in a cell - resembling a motel room - for years with no human contact, until one day, he wakes up out in the open, a free man. Years of captivity have turned him into a deadly vengeful machine and soon goes on a violent rampage, seeking information as to who was responsible for his life-altering incarceration and why. In the hope reuniting with his daughter (the only family he has left) he obliges the tasks given by a mysterious rich man behind everything.

The idea of a director, whose work I admire, doing an alternate take on this material seemed interesting. Lee has the stylistic chops to render the pulpiness of this material honorably. He didn’t necessarily seek out this project. Oldboy was going to be remade eventually, and it could have been a lot worse.

At one point Spielberg was going to direct and Will Smith was going to star… With respect those two talents, I guarantee the whole movie would have been neutered, had that collaboration gotten of the ground. Earlier, it was going to be a Nicolas Cage vehicle. The protagonist role of this story would have been too fitting for the beaten-to-death Cage shtick. Enter, Josh Brolin, a tough-guy, who regularly walks the line between B-movie schlock and high art.

He does good work at making the gruff and furious man vulnerable. Physically, he is up to the task of the famously ridiculous side-scrolling fight scene in the hall with the hammer. Michael Imperioli, a Lee regular, is a pretty cool choice as the best friend. Elizabeth Olsen as the volunteer medical assistant helping a dangerous man seems a little far-fetched. It’s one of those issues, where I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the writer, director or actor.

There’s also Samuel L. Jackson as an underworld jailer. This story was originally a Japanese Manga, and Jackson really looks like he’s out of a comic book. That brings me to the biggest problem in this film, which is Sharlto Copely’s head-villain character. I really liked him in District 9 for his improvisational skills in the weasel-like role of a man in horrific trouble. This year, in Elysium and in this movie, he plays a villain -but on a generically cartoonish level. I can tell that he’s having fun, but he’s just not convincing.

When the movie was over, my girlfriend, who hadn’t seen the original film, gave me the satisfaction of looking disturbed. The movie does its job. It’s unforgettable, bold, filled with action and has a mind-blowingly messed up twist. At the same time, I felt a sense of waste. I was told a story that I already knew while watching talented performers demonstrate a fraction of their abilities all under the direction of a guy who would much rather be making the personal projects, for which he has passion, but big studios don’t.

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