While the remake is not something inherently problematic by itself, when it adds little or nothing to the original and/or is made for purely mercenary reasons it can be a soulless, pointless exercise. Despite the pedigree of all involved, Spike Lee's take on Korean director Park Chan-wook's cult sensation Oldboy never really hides its mercenary motivations, even if the director's well-known cheek and abrasiveness is present and correct. The original's brutal, numbing violence remains pretty much intact in Mr. Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich's take on the Korean adaptation of a Japanese graphic novel, messing enough with the original to make it more of an overt comment on contemporary America but retaining most of what made the original narrative so distinctive.

     The hapless salaryman lockd up for a generation to make amends for a fault he cannot remember is here all-American adman jerk Joe Doucett (a coiled, raging Josh Brolin), an undignified mess of machismo, arrogance and entitlement who sees his life collapse down the drain in one single night, the very same he is kidnapped mysteriously and thrown into a non-descript motel room that is actually a jail in disguise. Finally released 20 years later, three presidents, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War and countless other things have changed America; and during his time away so has Joe, from aspiring "one percenter" to wrathful vengeance machine atoning for his guilty conscience. He pieces together the mystery behind his penance with the help of kindly nurse Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) and bartender and old friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli), only to realise he has always been a mere pawn in the hands of a "master of the universe" (an unctuously villainous Sharlto Copley) - one of the men he had wanted to become.

     Messrs. Lee and Protosevich successfully inject this subtext into the original narrative (with the film's constant surveillance issue also bringing to mind the current NSA scandals) but are otherwise content to respect Mr. Park's tone of gleeful, morally questioning and questionable satire, without truly adding anything else to the material. Worse, in attempting a new take on one of the original's signature scenes and failing, the director actually proves how pointless it is to try to remake a film that lived so much off its connection to a particular film culture for an audience that ideally wouldn't have been exposed to it - since there's little doubt that the idea behind remaking Oldboy as a "mainstream" American movie was to get it out of the "ghetto" "foreign films" have become in the US, while entirely unaware that its sheer "Korean-ness" would be part of its attraction.

     It's clear Mr. Lee tried to appropriate the material as his own (the constant references to New York's Chinatown suggest an attempt to work the celebrated "grindhouse" double bills of heavily dubbed Eastern kung fu movies into the film's tapestry), but the circumstantial issues surrounding its release suggest he didn't have his way with Oldboy: his three-hour director's cut was reportedly refused by the producers, leaving both Mr. Lee and Mr. Brolin sorely disappointed, and resulting in a streamlined 103-minute version that is actually shorter than the two-hour original and was half-heartedly released by its US distributor, about to be shuttered and folded. There's a sense that this Oldboy lost its footing somewhere in the end zone and in so doing wasted the good stuff it had going for itself.

Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Michael Imperioli, Samuel L. Jackson (uncredited)
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriter: Mark Protosevich, from the screenplay by Hwang Jo-yun, Im Jun-hyung and Park Chan-wook for Park Chan-wook's film Oldboy
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Roque Baños
Designer: Sharon Seymour
Costumes: Ruth E. Carter
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown
Producers: Roy Lee, Doug Davison, Nathan Kahane  (Good Universe, Vertigo Entertainment and 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks)
USA, 2013, 103 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, November 26th 2013


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