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Film Review: Spike Lee misses the mark on 'Oldboy' remake

November 29, 2013|By Andy Klein
  • Josh Brolin and Samuel L. Jackson in the Spike Lee film "Oldboy."
Josh Brolin and Samuel L. Jackson in the Spike Lee film… (Courtesy of Filmdistrict )

In Spike Lee's “Oldboy,” Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, an obnoxious, drunken advertising man who is mysteriously kidnapped and tossed into a “private prison,” with only a TV for companionship. Just as mysteriously, he's released 20 years later. Thanks to his electric friend, he knows that his wife has been murdered, he's been framed for the crime, and his daughter has been raised by foster parents.

Waking up in the middle of nowhere — within a major city, no less — he has an understandable obsession with finding his daughter, figuring out who has stolen that many years from his life, and most of all, learning why he's been imprisoned. After all, what did he ever do to drive someone to such lengths?

It almost goes without saying that he's on the edge of madness or even over the brink. His condition is exacerbated when he receives a phone call from his persecutor (Sharlto Copley, from “District 9”), challenging him to, in essence, “come and get me.” In spite of this crazed turmoil, Joe manages to bond with Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a community worker with her own past problems.

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The new “Oldboy” is a remake of Park Chan-wook's identically named 2003 Korean production. Remakes present thorny problems for filmmakers and critics alike. Chief among them is the fidelity to the source material. It might be best to approach the film as though it just sprang fully formed from the filmmakers' skulls.

But it's often impossible: You can't remake “Gone with the Wind” and have the South win the war or even just have Rhett and Scarlett walk off into the sunset. There is an assumed knowledge on the part of the audience.

In the case of Lee's “Oldboy,” the problem is at its worst, because the earlier film was, like most subtitled films, unseen by (as a guess) 99% of the American moviegoing audience. At the same time it has been seen by virtually every critic in the country, with the vast majority liking it and a large portion adoring it.

Count me among the passionate: When I was asked in 2009 to list my top 10 of the decade — a ridiculous endeavor — Park's “Oldboy” was number five. In 2005 I wrote, “The story is utterly preposterous ... but the style is so mesmerizing that we would likely not notice until long after leaving the theater.”

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