Monday, September 1, 2014

"Oldboy" (2013)

Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen and Sharlto Copley
Written by Mark Protosevich
Directed by Spike Lee
Rated R - Violence, language, nudity, sex
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Trailer (Red Band)

Joe (Josh Brolin) is a drunk. One night after missing his daughter's birthday party and screwing up an important meeting with a client, Joe wakes up in what at first appears to be a motel room. But he quickly learns it is, in fact, a prison cell. A cell in which Joe spends the next twenty years. Over those years, Joe manages to avoid going insane (barely) and eventually quits drinking and gets himself into shape in the hopes of finding his young daughter, Mia.

One day, his wish is granted and Joe wakes up having been released into the outside world, of which he knows only what he's managed to see on TV over the years. He's given money, clothes and a cell phone that he doesn't quite understand how to use. He hooks back up with his old friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli), who owns a bar, and meets a young nurse named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) who helps him recover his health.

Soon enough, Joe is out for revenge. He wants to know who put him in a box for twenty years, and why. And he'll kill or hurt anyone who gets in his way. Unfortunately for Joe, he's not the hunter... he's the hunted. He just doesn't know it yet.

I really liked the 2003 Korean film "Oldboy," adapted from a manga. It was stylish and weird and kind of horrifying and featured a wild, memorable twist ending. Rumors of an American remake have circulated for years, with names like Will Smith and Steven Spielberg attached to it. Frankly, those are two names I couldn't even believe I'd see related to "Oldboy," given the nature of the material, but whatever. Ultimately, it was Spike Lee who brought an American version to the screen and the results are... mixed.

Parts of this film are quite good. It's often visually interesting, awash in bold colors and intriguing costuming choices. The cast appears to be trying, keeping things lively if a bit uneven. And yet, the film overall isn't particularly engrossing. It feels slight, like it's just going through the motions. I felt very little emotional investment in what was going on, even though the film retains the incredible twist that the original had. But it all feels so much more... standard, somehow. While the original was stylish and engrossing, this one feels stylish and... hollow.

The film recreates the original's famous hammer fight sequence, but it feels somewhat awkward here. It feels like it should be one of the movie's better fights, but there's something oddly artificial and stage-y feeling about it. The film's violence is all in short, vicious bursts. One of the film's more memorable scenes features Brolin finally coming face to face with his jailor, played rather colorfully by Samuel L. Jackson. None of the film's fights are difficult to understand, and Lee favors longer takes that really focus on all the bone-crunching moves on display.

Brolin kind of overdoes it with his drunken stupor at the beginning, but grows more reserved as the film goes on. Problematically, he doesn't have much chemistry with co-star Elizabeth Olsen, though each give good performances on their own. These two are supposed to fall in love, but there's little indication of that in the scenes they share together until they hook up later in the film.

I'm not sure exactly how to describe what Sharlto Copley does with his character, Adrian Pryce. He's reserved, but also somewhat theatrical. It's a very odd performance, very effete, but it lacks a sense of menace one is looking for in a villain. Even when Pryce is exacting his ultimate revenge, Copley, like the rest of the film, never feels quite right.

Part of the problem may be related to reports that producers took control of the film from Lee, excising some 35 minutes of material. Perhaps these missing scenes would produce a more cohesive, interesting whole. But, such material might also slow things down - "Oldboy" moves pretty quickly, and unless those thirty minutes are what gets me more emotionally involved, getting through a longer version might feel like a chore.

"Oldboy" isn't outright bad, it just feels like something's missing. The cast give performances that range from odd to great, the fights range from cool to awkward, and the images from mundane to bold. It's this uneven feeling that keeps "Oldboy" from achieving much. It's interesting to watch, but I feel like most will find the original to be a better, more intense experience.

See Also
Oldboy (2003)
Snowpiercer (2013)