Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy will go down as one of the bigger disappointments of 2013, that is, if it is remembered at all. This is unfortunate though as it feels to me that this is one of those films that was locked out and given up on before it even had a chance. Initial reaction to that previous statement goes to the fact this was originally planned as a wide release, but was quickly cut back to a limited roll-out which typically accompanies smaller films where the studios expect positive buzz and strong word of mouth to build anticipation for it once they expand to more cities. This obviously didn't happen in the case of Oldboy as it was pretty much dead in the water from the time the earlier decision was made to push it back a month from October 25th to November 27th. Back to the initial reaction statement though, while it may go to the aforementioned unfortunate scenario it seems the truth is that this project was probably dead from the moment it was greenlit by whatever studio head thought it a good idea to remake the 2003 Korean film that has amassed an extremely loyal following and is considered a masterpiece by many. Though I always thought the purpose of re-making something was to bring it to the attention of those who might not otherwise discover the original there are those more cynical who believe the sole purpose of piggy-backing off the name of a successful foreign film and Americanizing it is purely for profit while hopefully guaranteeing a win financially; they are probably right. Still, that clearly all but backfired here as no one thought through how you might market a film where much of its story and the suspense that goes along with it are dealt in the twists and surprises the film holds close to its chest. No one seems to have thought through that this brutally dark picture isn't what most moviegoers are looking for at Thanksgiving and that it would have likely been better facing off against Bad Grandpa than Frozen. This piece is not meant to question why the film failed financially or in its marketing though, but instead if the film itself was even necessary. I haven't seen the original Chan-wook Park film and so I was no less than intrigued by the trailers and anxious to see what a director like Lee might do with this perplexing material.

Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson) is in charge of some ugly things in Spike Lee's Oldboy.
Beginning in 1993 we are introduced to Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) a pig of a man who drinks excessively and hits on his clients girlfriends while they are in the bathroom. We learn his job is on the line, his skills place him in a valuable, but tough position and that his habits have led to a less than stellar relationship with his ex-wife whom he has a three year-old daughter with. On the night he needs to close a critical deal with the ever intimidating Lance Reddick he allows his basic instincts to take over his reason and drinks himself into such a state he doesn't remember being kidnapped. When he wakes up in a motel room that could be anywhere he accepts it without question, but quickly discovers this isn't the typical guest room, but a prison set-up to keep him in a confined place and under supervision. His meals are delivered through a small slit in the door, his plain white shorts and t-shirts are kept neatly in a drawer and he is kept informed of the outside world by a small TV in the wall. It is from here he learns that his ex-wife, Donna Hawthorne (Hannah Ware), has been murdered and that he is the prime suspect. His daughter is still alive, but he has no memory of this happening or how he ended up in this prison. He is stuck to feel the guilt of what has happened with no power as to fix it or how he is now perceived. The trailer tells us Joe will remain locked in this room for twenty years and over the course of the first several years Joe strangely enough happens to come across a show in the vein of 20/20 that looks at unsolved murders and gives him the progress of how far his daughter has come, how she was adopted by loving parents and that she has a talent for playing music. Left with no other choices, Joe decides to turn himself around. He drops the drinking (though a bottle of Vodka is still delivered every day with his food) and he begins working out, but most importantly he begins writing letters to his long lost Mia in hopes that he will one day reunite himself with her and convince her of his innocence. The focus on the character development is key here as the film would have unfolded in a highly different fashion were Joe the same man when he got out as when he went in. In this light, Brolin proves a force to be reckoned with as it is clear his investment in the character goes beyond what is on the surface of those defining characteristics, but more in how lean in both his body and focus he has become by the time he is set free and how that defines his predetermined course of action.

Having not seen the original means I had no hint of the themes or central idea this film would be toying with. In taking a look at the film from this perspective I was both bewildered and shaken by how things turn out. It is a film sure to be under-appreciated due to its reputation alone while what Lee has actually concocted (and how much of this is in line with the original theme rather than just conception is again beyond me) is a very intimate study of how a man might unknowingly allow his character to define his destiny. It is hard to have an open discussion concerning the point the film is trying to make without divulging some of the major details, but what we can talk about is the way in which the film is put together that feels so labored over and specific to the vision of Lee's interpretation of the material that it is impossible not to feel the care put into it and interpret that as a kind of care we too develop. As I'm not a big fan of Lee's in general I have no feelings of obligation, but it is easy to see just how different of a project this is for him and how his style has been appropriated for the kind of story this is telling and that is appreciated. The way in which the camera moves and shifts as if knowingly on some type of rig at moments in Joe's drunken states are distinctively opposite to how he is feeling yet when we are locked in the room with him the camera is very loose and unlike the hidden cameras that keep a watch on him. They go from the stilted awkwardness of first meeting someone to the not necessarily ease of being with someone we've known for a while, but an ease that says we better know who this person is and have accepted that with no more questions to be asked. When Brolin's Joe is set free on the world we know the type of person he has become and while his brutality is shocking it is not unexpected, but in fact it is explained and understood. What further demonstrates the very particular style of this film is the way in which the rest of the characters work in conjunction with that tone. Not only do Sam Jackson and Sharlto Copley deliver menacing performances, Jackson's is familiar while Copley has the more flashy of the two and garners more screen time, but is also far more interesting. It is through his Adrian Pryce that we come to understand not just why he is so peculiar and what re-enforces his weird mannerisms and requests, but why his drive is misguided and how the subtle brainwashing of an individual can over time build to a demented reality where it is acceptable to the human mind to play games that deal with human life as if it were something to be manipulated by someone of an equal existence.

Joseph Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a man with one purpose...and a hammer.
It is hard to like Joe in the beginning and though we see him transform into this determined, slightly singular human being we get this through the dedicated performance of Brolin combined with the subtle tactics of how it is documented. Lee allows the story to be told in a very straightforward fashion, which works because the narrative itself could be seen as somewhat confusing. What adds to the strange nature of the film and gives it this perception of being dark and calculated is a combination of both how the actors convey their characters as well as how that acting applies to building up the strange turn of events this film includes. What I liked about this way of working though is that it is able to say a lot without feeling like it has to over-explain or relay a ton of information through dialogue. The shot selection, as I said earlier, putting our eyes directly where they need to be in order for us to understand the natural progression of the story and how one thing leads to the next is key. The idea of one thing leading to the next is of course pertinent to any film, but that aspect (as are most of them) is very specific here and absolutely essential to the plot. I am always looking for how seemingly random details or things people might deem unnecessary to the make-up of a film will ultimately contribute to what the film was trying to achieve and as these types of "distractions" came up throughout this film I began to wonder what their purpose was, how would they fit in? The first sequence in which we see Brolin develop his character over twenty years is so exact and so finely tuned I expected the rest of the film to be that way and as we are brought around to the final scene in the film that spells out everything Joe and ourselves have been searching for it not only justifies each of the strings that the story used to function but it shows us that everything we saw was absolutely critical. Not only on the level of serving the surface story, but in bringing to a head the complexities and questions that the story had us pondering and questioning up until that moment. It is one of those instances where I wasn't sure if the motivation or reasoning would actually pay off or dissolve into something typical until the last moments. It is a revenge story, that is clear, but more than that it is one of misguided anger, wrongly placed blame (despite Joe being an asshole) and the advantages power without restraint provides. It is a slickly-designed, well-shot (cinematographer Sean Bobbit of 12 Years a Slave really knows how to hammer home the smells and tastes of things simply through the visual medium) and well-acted film that will suffer for not being the first adaptation out of the gate.

 All of that said, this sum of very interesting parts still adds up to a film that isn't necessarily anything exceptional in the way I hoped it might be after hearing the praise the original received and who made up the team that put this one together. I was certainly able to find a few faults along the way and while many of them have to do with questions that have come up since leaving my screening the one I found most glaring while watching was that of an extended fight scene that was captured in one take. I enjoy pushing the creative boundaries of filmmaking and I love to see directors challenging themselves and as I witnessed this in the course of the film I though it a nice stylistic choice Lee made to add another layer of calculation that would re-enforce the theme of how he placed his and our eye here, but instead the set-up lost all believability as the extras and stuntmen attacking Brolin came at him one by one instead of ganging up and overpowering him. This combined with the fact it was so obviously choreographed rather than seeming natural based not only on the movements of the characters but the horrible sound design  during the sequence that made each hit sound like something out of a cartoon rather than the blunt strike of a hammer breaking skin and bone. I understand that this is based off of a Korean film which is in turn based on a manga (Japanese comic) and that this was likely intended to be based on the style of Kung fu fights in which the opponents don't carry guns, but in this one glaring sequence I was taken out of the story for a moment and while still proving essential for things to play out as they would down the road it is the one prime example where Lee allows the style to override the substance; something he'd done so well at balancing up to that point. This and the fact I wasn't able to completely buy into Elizabeth Olsen's character from the beginning and found it hard to believe the relationship that develops does indeed take place. It helps Olsen is a talented actress and is necessary to make the intended statement, but could it have been done a little more convincingly? Probably so. Still, I'm thinking about the film the next day and can't help but feel its effects will be hard to shake, in a more positive than negative way, which has to stand for something.

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