Skip to main content

I'm stuck in a motel room!

Oldboy
(2013)

(SPOILERS) I’m not averse to remakes so long someone has a good reason for going there. Generally, I wouldn’t regard “It was in a foreign language” as a valid motive. Just occasionally however, even a straight retelling can provide the lazy distraction of a different-but-the-same iteration, although one invariably ends up reaching the same conclusion; why did they bother? Most of non-English language films picked by Hollywood for a remake fail at the box office, and yet the lesson is never learned. If there’s a whiff of a name property, even from a somewhat insular bean counter standpoint, something with any chance of audience recognition, that’s enough. I seem to be in the minority with regard to the original Oldboy, as it didn’t do very much for me. Some bravura sequences and a compelling premise aside, I was became increasingly disenchanted as it became progressively more ridiculous and hysterical (and not as in funny) during the final act. It doesn’t surprise it took the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, as it’s just the sort of material an excitable Quentin Tarantino would fall for hook, line, and sinker. Consequently, my lack of veneration probably left me at least vaguely open to someone else’s take; perhaps the issues I had would be approached differently? That someone, after many fall starts, turned out to be Spike Lee. He makes a few cosmetic changes, but ironically (given how wired Park Chan-wook’s movie is) the sombre, disengaged, tone proves to be OIdboy 2013’s undoing, further underlining just how unlikely and far-fetched the scenario is. And with that, the fundamental intention, the emotional punch line, is swept away.


Lee at least warrants the benefit of the doubt. The released movie is not his preferred version, as producers lopped off 35 minutes against his wishes. It’s possible that in its unexpurgated form it’s a really good movie, and that the pacing really clicks. But his Oldboy seems long and listless as it is, unable to find its groove. Additionally, a longer edit wouldn’t fix core problems with the narrative. I suppose there might be an element where it’s explained that hypnosis has been used used to ensure Joe (Josh Brolin) and Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) fall in love… But that’s a wholly unpersuasive element of the original movie; I suppose it at lease evidences the makers were aware of the disconnect in their plot, but mostly it shows they had no idea how to make sense of it. Here, Joe and Marie fall for each other through an engineered coincidence, and we’re asked to swallow the idea that the rampantly affected Adrian (Sharlto Copley, whose performance kicks and strains against the dour tone while being simultaneously quite uncompelling) brought his plan to fruition by cajoling her through a troubled foster environment.


We don’t believe it for a second, and it makes the climax all the more misconceived and dismissable. If, rather than breaking down and begging for death/Adrian not to tell Marie, Joe had been dumbfounded that such a cockamamie plan had actually worked, the makers might have at least shown self-awareness.  This version is based directly on the 2003 film, rather than the Manga (as originally intended when Spielberg and Will Smith briefly flirted with the property). The thrust in both film versions is that something meaning nothing to one person, a youthful foolishness, leads to irrevocable consequences for another. But the alterations made by Lee and writer Mark Protosevich (something of a remake man; with Poseidon and I Am Legend behind him, inspiration is clearly not his forte) serve to cast an even harsher light on the original’s shortcomings.


Changing the relationship that leads to Adrian’s actions adds symmetry and ick factor, but it is correspondingly less believable that young Joe never heard about the consequences. The rise of Adrian, a billionaire no one has ever heard of, including Joe’s school chum Chucky (Michael Imperioli), who hasn’t spend 20 years locked in a room, is also difficult to countenance. Luminous and lovely as she is, Olsen’s acting talent can’t overcome the problem with Marie any more that she could sell Elle Brody in Godzilla. Olsen is stuck with a character of incoherent and unbelievable motivation, a cypher created to fulfil a plot point.


Whatever my opinion of Park’s film as a whole, the filmmaking skill is undeniable. On the most surface level, the corridor fight scene has justifiably become a legend in its own right. Lee refits it here and, while there is some excitement from seeing this kind of one shot (well, a few more, since its split level) choreography, it’s diffused by the weakness of opponents who only ever pull their punches in order to make the sequence flow. Better is the savage beat down of a football squad just after Joe is released. And the exit from solitary itself, via a trunk in the middle of a field, retains a surreal splendour unfortunately lacking elsewhere. Joe’s incarceration has its moments, such as hallucinating the bellhop picture on the wall come to life (played by Cinque Lee, Spike’s brother, this is surely a nod to his role in Mystery Train 25 years ago). Samuel L Jackson works with Lee for the first time since Jungle Fever, and his performance as Chaney, Mohawk aside, would blend in seamlessly with pretty much all his shouty roles of late. Joe’s torture of Chaney is wince inducing, but reflects the movie as a whole; impersonal, functional, efficient filmmaking that looks accomplished and has the occasional flourish but fails to make the viewer care about what happens.


The final scene also departs from Park’s original. Lacking the hypnosis angle, Joe sees justice for what he has done as re-interment in his motel room. At which point he smiles. Conceptually, it’s a neat and effective choice, but to have resonance Lee and Brolin need to translate the horror at Joe learning of what he has done. And they can’t pull it off. Perhaps that’s why Park opted for such insane excess. Brolin is fine; moody and taciturn, he lacks iconic presence of Min-sik Choi; perhaps he needs roles with more differentiation or flair to make an impression, as he isn’t sufficiently commanding on his own.


This is one of Lee’s few overtly studio-minded movies, following Inside Man seven years ago.  It’s ironic then that it’s proved to be one of the biggest stinkers of his career (up there with Miracle at St. Anna in terms of budget far exceeding box office).  It’s difficult to see how anyone thought a picture with such a grim twist would ever be more than a cult property in the US to begin with, and therefore probably not a smart idea to throw big (-ish) bucks its way. All the handsome production values in the world can’t justify this movie’s existence any more than the similarly pointless Let Me In a few years ago. That, at least, retained many of the original’s strengths. Oldboy only goes to confirm its predecessor’s weaknesses.


**

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983)
(SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bonds in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball, but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again, despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Charming. Now she's got the old boy's money, she's making a play for the younger one.

Woman of Straw (1964)
(SPOILERS) The first fruit of Sean cashing in on his Bond status in other leading man roles – he even wears the tux he’d later sport in Goldfinger. On one level, he isn’t exactly stretching himself as a duplicitous, misogynist bastard. On the other, he is actually the bad guy; this time, you aren’t supposed to be onside his capacity for killing people. It’s interesting to see Connery in his nascent star phase, but despite an engaging set up and a very fine performance from Ralph Richardson, Woman of Straw is too much of a slow-burn, trad crime thriller/melodrama to really make a mark. All very professionally polished, but the spoiled fruits of an earlier era.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.