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Oldboy (2013)

But You Can Never Leave

Spike Lee's adaptation of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is not only validation that modern remakes can work, it's also a hell of an entertaining film and a vast improvement over the original. Those are blasphemous words, in some circles, but they're also demonstrably true.

It may be a feat to get die-hard fans of 2003's Oldboy into the theatre, but this movie isn't for them, anyway. It's for newcomers and people like me, who were intrigued by Park's version, but never in love with it. Lee largely replaces surreal imagery with motivation and back story, and screenwriter Mark Protosevich manages to weave an even sicker and more complex web of deceit--without once resorting to hypnosis as the catch-all for every contrivance. Both mine the moral ambiguity of a pop- and technology-obsessed culture that's evolved over the past two decades, to construct a more perfect film on the wobbly foundation of Park's imperfect one.

And in the process, Lee has filmed the best, grittiest Batman movie of all time.

More on that later.

The film stars Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett, a lecherous alcoholic and deadbeat dad, whom we meet in 1993. In the course of one fateful evening, he ends his advertising career by royally botching a client dinner; gets turned away from his best friend's bar for being too loaded; and passes out in the street, just as a downpour hits. He comes to, meets a mysterious woman with a bright yellow umbrella, and awakens the next morning in a strange hotel room. The door is a facade, backed by steel walls, and the window opens onto a lit picture of a daytime scene.

Joe stays in this room for years, suffering complete isolation and a routine diet of Chinese dumplings, Frosted Flakes, and vodka that are slid through a slot at the base of the non-door. He passes the time watching television, including a true-crime show that details the horrific murder of his ex-wife, for which he's been framed. He weeps with pride and regret when he sees his young daughter, now in a loving foster home, profiled as a musical prodigy. As years turn to decades, Joe resolves to escape his prison--shedding addictions, strengthening his mind and body, and watching as much martial arts programming as he can find.

Now's as good a time as any for a "Spoiler Warning". If you want to remain as pure as possible going into this film, please skip to my ringing endorsement in the last paragraph.

Right off the bat, Lee and Protosevich divorce themselves from Park's version by giving the main character a real identity. Yes, Joe Doucett is an awful man, but he has a personality and range of emotion that actor Min-sik Choi either didn't possess or wasn't allowed to express when presented with similar material. Oldboy 2003 told us to get behind an unlikable protagonist because, well, he was the only person available to take us through the weird, winding plot. He was selfish and distant, almost from start to finish, and proved that even cool, well-filmed fight scenes and multiple tooth extractions can grow tiresome when all your hero does is glower, fuck, and pose.

But let's step away from the protagonist and examine his sidekick for a moment. In the original film, the "Joe" character escapes and befriends an attractive, young sushi chef--who becomes not only his partner in crime, but also a partner in the sack. She is grossly submissive, and written solely as a force to prop up the male lead's ego (and, of course, to be placed in jeopardy by the film's mysterious villain). Lee, in contrast, casts the remarkable Elizabeth Olsen as an EMT who volunteers in the homeless community. She encounters Joe fresh after his escape, and is drawn into his vendetta gradually; sure, she winds up in pretty much the same spot as her character's original incarnation, but her brains, wit, and compassion at least make that outcome a surprise.

Fans of Park's Oldboy may wonder why they should bother with the remake, if they already know the film's shocking twist climax. Simply put, Lee and Protosevich are much smarter than these people may give them credit for, and have laid out their film with a series of pitfalls that will keep even diehards on their toes. They haven't changed the meaning of Oldboy, or even many of its key beats. Rather, they subvert expectations at almost every turn in ways that flesh out many of Park's half-baked ideas. For example, the fact that Joe is specifically on a mission to find his daughter, and hand deliver a sack of letters he's spent decades writing and hiding, should immediately raise the question, "Isn't his partner supposed to be his daughter?"

Yes, she is--supposed to be, I mean. And the remake's big reveal is a doubly satisfying "gotcha" moment that will astound newcomers and, I imagine, begrudgingly tickle those in the know. The filmmakers have switched some things around, including the motivation of the man who'd paid to imprison Joe. I won't spoil the rest of the film, but suffice it to say Sharlto Copley delivers one of the year's most intriguing and memorable performances. His character's mind is so warped by tragedy and molded by revenge that even the flashbacks he walks us through are like demented scenes from 80s after-school specials, by way of The Shining. Fitting, considering how deeply the theme of media influence on consciousness (collective and individual) runs throughout Oldboy 2013.

Earlier, I suggested that the new Oldboy is the ultimate, unofficial Batman story. In the climax, as our characters shatter innumerable mirrored walls of deception, it's easy to imagine Brolin's angry, black-clad agent of justice as The Dark Knight in street clothes--and Copley as a black-hearted, flamboyant, yet oddly sentimental Joker, straight out of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. In my review of the 2003 film, I made unfavorable comparisons to Batman, but that's because Park and his co-writers appeared largely concerned with camp, contrivance, and things that just plain looked cool. Lee and Protosevich dig deeper into their damaged combatants, and ultimately redefine what it means to make the ultimate sacrifice for a loved one.

It's not all wine and roses in 2013, however. Michael Imperioli pops up as Joe's bar-manager friend, and is dispatched in a way far inferior to the horrific poignancy of his counterpart's demise in the original. It's unfortunate, because Imperioli deserves much more for the great work he does with a bit part. I was also a bit jarred by the famous "hallway fight" that highlighted Park's film. Lee still locks his escapee in a battle to the death with an army of thugs, but it ends very quickly, and with little satisfaction--until Joe backs into another "level" and winds up taking on more henchmen in quite spectacular fashion. I appreciated this switch-up after the fact, but struggled with disappointment in the moment.

Neither of these would have been issues, I suppose, had I not seen the original film. For that reason, I recommend skipping Park's version, and sticking with the remake--or at least seeing Lee's film first. It's the only way to maintain the story's surprises, both grand and incidental, and to appreciate Park's occasionally interesting but ultimately too-rough-for-prime-time sketches. His was an action movie powered by stupid-teen hormones, which occasionally put on the airs of intelligent, even enlightened filmmaking (much like John Woo's slow-motion doves backed by angelic choirs in Face/Off). Lee and Protosevich deliver a brutal, sexy, adult anti-hero movie that not only indulges nihilism while worshipping love, but is smart enough to know which of the two is really stronger.