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I swear, I don't know nothin'! I swear before God and eight motherfuckin' white people!
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Neither imaginative enough to stand on its own nor inspired enough as a successful remake, Spike Lee's 'reintepretation' is unlikely to find much of an appreciative audience
Spike Lee's 'reimagining' of the Park Chan-Wook cult classic 'Oldboy' is a queer creature despite the notable absence of the original's iconic octopus-slurping scene. Those unfamiliar with Park's original, which itself was based on a late 1990s Japanese manga, will likely find it bizarre and even off-putting; and yet those who have seen and loved Park's 2004 Cannes Gran Prix winner are likely to dismiss this as mild and underwhelming compared to the original. But most of all, there is something distinctly Asian in the tale's themes of revenge and solitude that feel an odd and therefore unsatisfying fit for an Americanised "reinterpretation".
Yes, to call Lee's version a remake will be if you take the filmmaker's words for it akin to blasphemy. According to Lee, he and his writer Mark Protosevich had not sought to remake Park's movie; rather, they have returned to the manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi to shape a similar yet somewhat different story that keeps the essential baroque details intact. And so the setup is the same a cold- blooded businessman is drugged and held captive in a windowless hotel room for 20 years, before being let out in a suitcase in the middle of a field.
The ever dependable character actor Josh Brolin plays the titular character named Joe Doucett, which we are introduced to as a boozy advertising executive who blows a make-or-break deal by propositioning his client's wife at the very meeting. His sentence for the next two decades while in captivity includes watching a ripped off version of 'America's Most Wanted' where he is held as the prime suspect for his ex-wife's murder, in between being fed the daily news as well as Chinese dumplings. The question upon his release is not who, but why as 'District 9's' Sharlto Copley plainly puts to him after revealing himself very early into the movie as Joe's captor which forms the core of the mystery behind his unusual circumstance.
Joe is aided in his subsequent quest for punishment and redemption by a bartender friend (The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli) as well as a kind- hearted social worker (Elizabeth Olsen). He has a timeline too Copley threatens to kill his daughter in the next 48 hours if he fails to figure out his identity as well as the reason for his imprisonment. Neither should be unfamiliar to those who have seen Park's version; indeed, despite what Lee and Protosevich claim, they have only sought to vary the details from their predecessor.
So instead of an exercise in dentistry when Joe confronts the caretaker of his prison (Samuel L. Jackson), we are treated to an equally grotesque sequence where he slices bits of skin from off the man's throat. Instead of gobbling an octopus live and whole, Joe merely stares hard at the animal in a restaurant aquarium. And perhaps most significantly, Joe gets to restage the original film's iconic extended sequence where his character takes on an entire army of thugs with no more than a claw hammer and pure rage - a three and a half minute scene rehearsed for six weeks which to Lee's credit, loses none of its predecessor's visceral thrills.
Notwithstanding the distinct sense of familiarity with the proceedings, there is just something lost in translation. Park's original was the second and perhaps most famous instalment of his "Vengeance Trilogy" whose exploration of redemption and salvation was firmly set against a unique cultural context; unfortunately, the motivations for Joe's imprisonment lack that dramatic heft when yanked out of that context, especially since the inherent familial concepts make much more sense within an Asian setting. Lee also does himself little favour by undermining an otherwise grim and thoughtful story with cartoonish elements, most notably Jackson's garish performance (complete with blonde ponytail we may add) as Joe's chief jailer turned tormentor.
Thankfully, Brolin anchors the titular role with his compelling presence, built on a single-minded embrace of his character's vengeance. His transformation from self-pity to determination is a testament to his prowess as an actor, not to mention his dedication by having gained and then lost a lot of weight. Olsen provides a surprisingly warm emotional centre to the movie, especially in portraying the love angle between her character and Joe - which happens to be one of the ancillary additions Protosevich has brought to this adaptation. Copley is similarly excellent as the demented mastermind behind Joe's depravity, in particular when the two finally confront each other's demons in the operatic climax.
Yet call it what you may, but Lee's "reinterpretation" can never quite dissociate itself from Park's festival cult classic. Not only do the key elements remain similar, Lee also retains the iconic touches of the South Korean original. But beyond the graphic brutality, there is just something too culturally specific about the story's twists on revenge and redemption that defy a cross-cultural interpretation. It won't satisfy fans weaned on Park's version, nor for that matter is it likely to win over new converts with its uneven mix of fantasy and stylised naturalism. They'll be baffled, they'll be astonished, but it is unlikely if you are encountering this tale for the first time that you'll be impressed.
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