Saturday, November 30, 2013

In Theaters: OLDBOY (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Spike Lee.  Written by Mark Protosevich.  Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, James Ransone, Max Casella, Linda Emond, Lance Reddick, Hannah Ware, Richard Portnow, Elvis Nolasco, Rami Malek, Caitlin Dulany, Cinque Lee. (R, 104 mins)

Park Chan-wook's 2003 film OLDBOY was the second part of the director's "Vengeance" trilogy of stand-alone films connected by the common theme of obsessive revenge, coming between 2002's SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and 2005's LADY VENGEANCE.  OLDBOY was the first to be released in the US, in the spring of 2005, and it became an immediate hit with cult and arthouse audiences for its savage violence, stylish direction, and creative set pieces, most notably a long, single-take sequence where the hero takes on an endless hallway full of thugs while armed with just a hammer, plus an instantly-legendary scene where the lead actor eats a live octopus.  Anchored by a galvanizing, ferocious performance by Choi Min-Sik and a devastating plot twist near the end, OLDBOY is almost universally considered a modern classic, so an American remake was inevitable.  It marks an unusual project for Spike Lee, who's in total director-for-hire mode here, bringing none of his usual style to the proceedings (it's very telling that it's "A Spike Lee Film" and not "A Spike Lee Joint").  After a moderate level of hype in past months, FilmDistrict dumped this on just 500 screens for Thanksgiving with almost no publicity other than star Josh Brolin entering rehab just a few days prior, and both Brolin and Lee voicing their displeasure that the producers took the project away from Lee during post-production, cutting anywhere from 35 to 60 minutes out of it, depending on who's telling the story.  This is also noteworthy as FilmDistrict's last release before folding and being absorbed by Focus Features, so it's obvious they're just doing the bare minimum here.  As far as American remakes for the subtitle-phobic go, OLDBOY isn't bad.  It frequently blunders and miscalculates, but admirably doesn't water-down or sugarcoat the shocking major reveal.  Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich (THE CELL, I AM LEGEND) also alter the rationale for the villain's actions, and believe it or not, that particular element is even more dark and twisted than in Park's original version.

In 1993, Joe Doucett (Brolin) is an alcoholic, asshole ad exec and deadbeat dad who's late with child support payments and his ex-wife is running out of patience.  After losing a lucrative deal when he drunkenly hits on the client's wife, Joe wanders around town in a stupor until he's abducted and held prisoner in a dingy hotel room.  There are no windows and he's fed twice a day and given a bottle of vodka.  He sees a news report that his ex-wife has been murdered and his DNA is all over the crime scene.  Days, weeks, years pass.  Every night, gas is released in the room and he passes out.  He watches TV (the inaugurations of Clinton and Bush and the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina indicate how much time is passing), befriends a family of mice that's ultimately served to him for dinner, uses the time to quit drinking, clear his head, and exercise obsessively.  He writes letters to his daughter Mia--who's been adopted by a new family and, as he learns from a TV show about his wife's murder and his own disappearance, grows up to be a cellist of some repute--vowing to prove his innocence and be a better father when he gets out. He writes an endless list of names of people he's wronged.  He watches the inauguration of Barack Obama.  After 20 years in this one room with no human contact, he's set free with a smartphone and wallet filled with money as he tries to piece together what happened and who is responsible.  He meets Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a recovering addict who works as a nurse at a free clinic, and after reading his letters to Mia, decides to help him in his quest for answers.

If you've seen Park's OLDBOY, then you know where the primary plot is headed.  And yes, Lee stages his own version of the hallway/hammer fight (which was previously ripped off by the forgettable Jude Law sci-fi dud REPO MEN) that goes on longer and is more elaborate but doesn't work as well.  Also not working as well is Lee's reliance on what looks like the finest CGI splatter technology that 1997 has to offer (one shotgun blast to the head is just embarrassing).  While Choi's performance in Park's film is hard to top, Brolin's level of commitment is undeniably impressive.  He both gained and lost weight for the role, then bulked up the muscle (in some scenes, he looks a lot like Brad Davis in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS).  While Joe adapts to 2013 life rather quickly (this may have played out more believably in Lee's original cut), Brolin is very good with his halting walk and confusing looks, almost looking like an animal at times.  There's even some chance for humor in some of his dialogue, as he incredulously asks Marie "I need to look at the Yellow Pages...where are all the pay phones?"  Olsen is charming as the kind-hearted Marie, a damaged soul who sees a strangely kindred spirit in this helpless man who's lost two decades of his life.  Where the film's biggest problems arise are with its villains.  Samuel L. Jackson has a minor supporting role as the guy overseeing Joe's imprisonment, but he's just an employee.  The real antagonist is billionaire Adrian Pryce, played by Sharlto Copley in a performance that can be charitably described as "odd."  In the original film, Yu Ji-tae played the villainous Lee Woo-jin as ruthless and mocking.  With perfectly-sculpted facial hair and eyebrows, and long, manicured fingernails, Copley plays Pryce as a preening, prissy hybrid of Vincent Price, Dr. Evil, and Paul Lynde.  Lee Woo-jin is cold and calculating.  Adrian Pryce is an effeminate, over-the-top Bond villain.  It doesn't work at all, and while Copley's only doing what he's been directed and scripted to do, his performance is an unmitigated disaster.  If I thought Lee watched any Eurotrash flicks at all, I'd swear he had Copley pattern his performance on some of cult actor John Steiner's more colorful turns in gems like SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS.

Lee and Protosevich ditch the original film's hypnotism element, which proves to be another big mistake.  By abandoning the hypnotism angle, they create some plausibility issues that Park managed to skate away from--for Pryce's plan to work, a lot of coincidences have to fall perfectly into place.  And in compiling his list of those he's harmed, it never occurs to Joe or his childhood buddy Chucky (Michael Imperioli) to think of Pryce?  The guy's a billionaire, so it's not like he lives an anonymous life.  And Pryce can just walk right into Chucky's bar and Chucky doesn't recognize this billionaire with whom he went to school?  And what did Chucky do with his private school education that he's now running a shitty bar?  And how does Pryce have a camera set up in the backroom of Chucky's shitty bar?  See?  Too many things fall perfectly into place.  At least in Park's version, you could say "Well, they were hypnotized and programmed to react a certain way when they heard this or saw that."  But in Lee's version--at least in its released state, that is-- it's just a string of ludicrously easy trips to Plot Convenience Playhouse.

Brolin's performance makes OLDBOY worth watching, but Lee's film still pales in comparison to Park's original.  Given the post-production tinkering and FilmDistrict's eventual dumping of it anyway, it has to be disheartening for the actor to have obviously invested a large amount of mental and physical exertion into his work only to have it go largely unnoticed if not outright dismissed.  Choi is an impossible act to follow as the protagonist of OLDBOY, but Brolin does his damnedest to match him and almost makes it.  It's too bad the same can't be said for the rest of the film.  Unlike some remakes, OLDBOY doesn't insult its source, but it doesn't add much to it, either.  Fans of the original will probably find it an interesting curio if nothing else.

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