“Ask not why you were imprisoned. Ask why you were set free.”
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson
Synopsis: Obsessed with vengeance, a man sets out to find out why he was kidnapped and locked into solitary confinement for 20 years without reason.
You’ve got to admit — it takes a filmmaker with some man-size cojones to even consider remaking a cult favourite like Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy, a film whose fan-base is ferociously devoted and vociferously outspoken about any attempt on the part of Hollywood to remake their darling. I shared their concerns when the likes of Steven Spielberg and Will Smith were attached to the project, but Spike Lee is about as far removed from Spielberg as it’s possible to get. Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, Lee possessed an admirable single-mindedness of purpose and an apparent agenda he approached with tireless energy. It’s true that he’s softened a little since those halcyon years, but he’s still a filmmaker who remains true to his vision and refuses to compromise simply to pander to the expectations of others. He vocally insisted that his version of the Manga story was a reinterpretation of the original source and not a remake of Park’s movie (even though the credits state otherwise), and it’s true that Lee’s version diverges from Park’s in the third act. Lee’s finale isn’t as shocking as Park’s but it ties the pieces of the tale together in a more satisfying fashion. Lee’s version of Oldboy isn’t a great movie, and can arguably be considered inferior to Park’s simply because it fails to improve upon it, but it’s as good a movie as you could expect from Hollywood.
Josh Brolin (Mimic, Gangster Squad) plays Joe Doucett, an alcoholic businessman barely holding his life together. Doucett foregoes his daughter’s third birthday party for an important business dinner with a prospective client, and just as it looks like he’s nailed a lucrative contract he blows it by hitting on the prospect’s girlfriend. Instead of going home, Doucett embarks on an epic bender during which he drinks himself into the kind of alcoholic stupor only an alcoholic could. He later awakens in what appears to be a hotel room, but which is in fact a prison cell in which he finds himself incarcerated for the next twenty years. During that time he sees not one other living being. His meals — always Chinese, always from the same restaurant — are delivered through a panel at the bottom of his cell door. Whenever his jailors need to access Doucett’s room they fill it with a gas that immediately renders him unconscious. His only company is a TV screen on which he witnesses the major events happening in a world from which he has been completely isolated.
Early on during his imprisonment, Doucett also sees a news report that states he is being sought for the brutal murder of his wife. Then, a few years later, on a crime programme reviewing the case, he learns that his daughter has been adopted. The sight of her playing a cello prompts Doucett to begin writing letters to her in which he apologises for his neglect as a father and tells her how much he loves her. The thought of his daughter also inspires him to give up the half-bottle of vodka which is delivered to his cell with each meal and to begin an exercise regime. And while he gets himself in shape, he plots his escape…
Before Doucett can put any escape plan into action, however, he finds himself cast back into the world as abruptly as he was snatched from it. Emerging from a suitcase in the middle of a field, Doucett returns to his home town a fitter, leaner man, filled with the need for vengeance and answers. With the aid of Chucky (Michael Imperioli), an old school friend and fellow drinker, and Marie (Elisabeth Olsen), a social worker with a history whom he ran into shortly after regaining his freedom, Doucett begins working through a list — a very long list — of people from his past whom he just might have pissed off badly enough for them to arrange to have him locked up for two decades.
Despite Lee’s claims to the opposite, the 2013 version of Oldboy sticks fairly close to the plot of the original for much of its running time, and for the first half-hour or so it holds its own pretty well. Brolin makes an agreeably dislikable knob who, while not perhaps deserving of 20 years inside, is long overdue a wake-up call as to just what a loser he has become, while the scenes in which he is locked up do an effective job in slowly getting the audience on his side. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have much of a character once he stops being a jerk; it’s as if his belligerence was his one defining feature, and its erosion has left him a blank slate reacting only to external stimuli. And it’s with Doucett’s release that Lee’s movie begins to lose its way a little as what begins as an intriguing mystery (assuming you haven’t seen the original movie) slowly devolves into a by-the-numbers revenge flick with comic book villains and a lot of gratuitous violence.
While Lee avoids some of the more infamous moments of Park’s version — our hero merely glances at an octopus in the Chinese restaurant instead of ripping off its head and stuffing it into his mouth, and instead of extracting his jailor’s teeth with a claw hammer he cuts out small pieces of his throat — he chooses to imitate the tour-de-force corridor brawl scene with near-disastrous results. Obviously, he felt the need to do things a little differently, but his highly stylised effort, complete with over-choreographed pauses, is so completely ill-judged that it’s a wonder nobody had the nerve to hold up their hand and state the obvious. That scene alone causes Lee’s movie immeasurable damage from which it only partially recovers, and marks the beginning of a descent into comic book thriller territory from which it never fully recovers.