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Film Review: The New Oldboy, "A Spike Lee Film"

Posted by David / December 6, 2013

oldboySitting through an advanced screening of Spike Lee's Oldboy at the much beloved Phi Centre with my friend Laura, I'll admit I wondered what all the fuss was about when the guy behind us rushed out with a snappy, sotto voce "f****** American b*******." True, by that time, my eyes were a little achy from rolling, and I was living right on the edge of boredom. I was also convincing myself I relished Josh Brolin's caveman-esque relationship with the Internet and his iPhone, and trying like hell to ignore all the little plot holes and continuity issues. It was bad, but, still, I wondered what the guy had expected--and from the director who brought us She Hate Me, no less--or if he was a glutton for disappointment, that most guilty of cult-fandom pleasures.

I first encountered Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy on TMN in my mother's basement when I was 18, and I'd be lying if I said it left much of an impression on me. I do remember a peculiar kind of waking-nightmarish quality that seemed to keep it engulfed and off-kilter. I also remember what felt like a really, really bad soundtrack, and that mass of hair, of course, on Dae-su's head. That's it; my 18-year-old self was not too sophisticated a cinephile.

Luckily, though, I hadn't seen it since that first time when I sat through the most recent adaptation, so the whack of conceited, shallow dung Spike Lee tried to ensnare us with, hoping we didn't notice the telling aftertaste, didn't get me any kind of flustered. Having since re-watched Park's Grand-Prix-winning version, I've begun to see the power of Oldboy--of what otherwise seemed utterly contrived under Lee's direction--and where Lee's remake decided against the essential pieces of Park's version that made it so arresting. Comparison, as such, is inevitable.

Where Park wrote his own screenplay and opted for an originally goofy, drunk Dae-su accompanied by only the most essential bits of backstory, Lee worked with a scripts written by Mark Protosevitch--who is responsible for I Am Legend, The Cell, and, most endearingly, Poseidon--and opted for a degrading, chunky ad-exec Doucette with an exposed knack for harassing Asian women on the street.
Where Park insisted on a human, believable and even understandable villain for his Dae-su to actually kind of relate to in the end, Lee's version gave us a detestable joke with a ponytail.

Where Park knew to charm disbelief into suspension with a very present sense of humor and character-driven quirkiness, Lee bet on too-much-is-quite-enough characterizations--including so many of Brolin's darkly simpleton affectations, Elizabeth Olsen's self-conscious timing and mindless, sexualized savior complex, and Samuel L. Jackson's idiotic blond brother-hawk, to name a few of many.

In fact, where Park left us riveted with a hero and anti hauntingly seeing eye to eye, consumed in loss at each other's hands, Lee's climax was dampened by nothing left to care about or reconcile in either of his.

His final result has an aptly gloomy tone, but it makes for a largely superficial version of the story, one that's hard to get invested in.

Though I might like to blame all of it on Spike Lee, the film's failures may mostly originate in the most mundane of show-biz routines. "If it ain't broken, don't fix it" is largely a sacrilegious cliché to the industry and this Americanized attempt at Oldboy is just the latest serving that proves it.

As much as the picture rings true of Spike Lee's bravado, it also reeks of Park-aimed second guesses, how little faith people had in the project (e.g., it was turned down by A LOT of people) and, most importantly, of the re-edit producers forced on Lee. In fact, that re-edit even made Lee take his signature "Spike Lee Joint" trademark off the picture, which I can only assume is his version of an Alan Smithee. He believed this should have been better, but the higher you run those feelings up the food chain, the less they matter.

The studios involved wanted something watered down and cool-looking enough to attract some lower common denominators and hopefully wrangle some of Oldboy's pre-established fan base. If the measuring stick is Lee's previous work or Park's adaptation, that dimly achieved aim compromised the work. And as much as that guy storming out had a point, I can't really bring myself to care too much. This was probably inevitable, and we already got a solid adaptation ten years ago.

If you want Spike Lee in charted, mastered waters, watch He Got Game, Bamboozled or 25th Hour, to name a few. Guy's a fully stocked Jerk Store, but he does his thing well. If you want to get your Oldboy fix, stick to Park Chan-wook (who I think outdoes the comic, which is very different), or resign yourself to giving into a giggle while watching Doucette use Songza.



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