Breaking Joint, by Craig Schroeder
After fifteen years of unjustified captivity, Oh Dae-su, the protagonist of Chan-wook Park’s 2003 film Oldboy, walks into a sushi bar and asks to eat something that’s alive. Oh Dae-Su proceeds to eat a live octopus, chewing and ripping as the animal’s tentacles squirm and dangle from his mouth. The scene is visceral, horrifying, and poetic; it signifies the start of Oh Dae-su’s tortured existence after escaping captivity. Spike Lee’s newest film (notably missing the perennial “Spike Lee Joint” label) is a remake of Park’s Oldboy. When the protagonist in Lee’s film enters a sushi bar, he breezes by an aquarium with an octopus suctioned to the side of the tank. This is the essence of Spike Lee’s Oldboy; we are reminded of what made Park’s film great, but Lee and company fail to capture the energy, emotion and excitement of the original.
Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), the American update of Oh Dae-Su, is a drunk; a terrible father and a worse husband. In the midst of a late-night bender, Joe is kidnapped and taken to a room where he will spend the next twenty years (note: twenty years, instead of fifteen, will prove to be the boldest update Lee makes to the 2003 original). While in captivity, Joe is framed for the murder of his wife and is forced to watch videos of his young daughter grow up before his eyes, unable to comfort her or explain the truth. His release is as unceremonious and inexplicable as his capture, but once free, he vows to find his daughter and take revenge on the people responsible for his imprisonment.
The absence of a “Spike Lee Joint” title card isn’t the only thing that differentiates Oldboy from Spike Lee’s filmography. Other than a single, free-floating dolly shot of the protagonist, used so effectively in films like Malcolm X and Inside Man, there is almost no indication that this is a Spike Lee film. Even in Lee’s more dour films, there is a joy to be had; Spike Lee is a filmmaker whose movies celebrate and champion film as an ever-evolving art-form. But Oldboy is joyless, which could be brushed off as a function of the solemn story, if not for the fact that Chan-wook Park made it so much fun the first time around. Lee has boiled the original film down and remolded it into a recognizable shape, but has sanded off the edges.
Lee’s Oldboy is done no favors by its lead actors. Josh Brolin has a hard time finding a happy medium between a cartoon character and a one-dimensional lug of beat-em-up masculinity. Brolin is able to bring some depth to Joe during his transformative twenty year captivity, but it’s the beginning and end of Joe’s transformation that are one-note and bland. Pre-capture, Joe is a hiccuping, singing drunk, fitting for a W.C. Fields bit but ill-placed in a film so saturnine and self-serious. Post-imprisonment, Joe is as flat as a half-strung guitar. After his release, Brolin plays Joe as either angry or confused, two emotions that eventually meld together in a way that’s as unapproachable as it is boring. Conversely, Sharlto Copley as Adrian, an adversary to Joe Doucett, is over-the-top in every way. His facial hair is as delicately cropped as Seneca Crane’s in The Hunger Games and he has a grotesque scar covering the left side of his body that the film is constantly finding reasons to linger on. He speaks with an odd lilt that is distracting and abrasive. Adrian is an eccentric and cold-blooded character but Copley’s portrayal would be more suitable for a second-rate Bond villain. Elizabeth Olson plays Marie, Robin to Brolin’s Batman, and is perfectly fine, though her character is often reduced to a mere plot device. Michael Imperioli turns in a good performance as Joe’s only connection to his previous life and James Ransone is also doing good work but unfortunately in service of a character who is entirely unnecessary.
Despite my grumbling, there are some redeeming qualities to Oldboy. The infamous one-take fight scene in the original is recreated rather convincingly, though Lee has copped to the fact that there is a cut in his version. But there’s some great fight choreography and Josh Brolin’s one-note tough guy is most convincing when he gets to swing a hammer at nameless henchmen. Samuel L. Jackson is pretty great, and seems to be having a lot of fun, in his small role as Chaney, the de facto face of the black market company employed to imprison Joe. And I can’t help but begrudgingly admire Lee for keeping the original film’s explosive and horrific finale mostly intact, albeit needlessly convoluted.
Any remake begs the question “do we need this film?” Do we need a new Oldboy? The original is only ten years old, but it can be inaccessible by traditional American cinema standards. So was an new Oldboy in order? I guess, I just wish it wasn’t the Oldboy we got.