wogma rating: Watch when on TV/online (?)
With Oldboy, Spike Lee attempted to remake gold, and has ended up with a film that just about barely turns up as bronze. Watching Park Chan-wook's original for the nth time would be significantly more worthwhile than giving Lee's film a shot, even though the source itself ensures that the film isn't completely unwatchable.Read more
Disclaimer time. Park Chan-wook's Oldboy ranks amongst my favourite films of all time, because it deals with my favourite themes - revenge, guilt and death, and because Park made a gritty, visceral yet stylish film that didn't shy away from pushing violence, sex and strong sexual themes to places they hadn't been to. Obviously, any remake of a film that one loves so much is awaited for with a strange mix of excitement and trepidation.
Add to that the fact that the remake was being helmed by the director of Inside Man - a highly underrated film, in my opinion; so yes, Spike Lee's Oldboy was keenly awaited, despite it being a remake of a film that, in an ideal world, shouldn't be touched. Unfortunately - and this is a problem with most remakes - Lee's adaptation is a miss, because it just doesn't seem to capture the soul of the original.
Surprisingly enough, even Sanjay Gupta's Zinda, a faithful 'tribute' - to put it politely - was a stylized, if heavily watered-down version of it, was actually a wee bit more intriguing than what Lee has given us.
Even if you haven't already watched the original or the Hindi remake, you'll probably already know that the film is about a man who is, without reason, held captive for a long, long period of time, and is then, as mysteriously, released. Except, the man is now angry. And he wants answers.
Even attempting to judge this film all by itself, independent of the original, one can't help see right from the start how flawed the very approach to the film is. The protagonist, Joe Doucett, is presented to us as a man with questionable morals. Not 'grey', mind you, which every human being is - but more 'charcoal', if you will. That automatically makes you not particularly care for him when he's imprisoned.
Also, Joe is imprisoned during a period where humankind has seen the kind of change - be it in lifestyle or in technology - that has been unprecedented. Thus, when he steps out, the world should appear so alien to him that his disorientation should be a fundamental part of his personality. Instead of using this as an obvious character attribute, all we get are hints that Joe is unaware of Google and touchscreens.
He, however, seems to be quite adept at cracking the answers to questions that, logically, he shouldn't even know to ask. Another important aspect that the film fails to get even close to right is how Joe's physical and emotional transformation must be, during and after the length of his captivity.
Park's Oh Dae-Su goes from an almost-portly man approaching middle-age, to a lean fighting machine, because the wish for revenge drives that in him. You can feel that physical transformation; you can feel that burning desire for revenge. Everything in Spike Lee's remake is superficial - the emotions, Joe's journey and his quest for answers, Josh Brolin's interpretation of Joe, all of it.
If there is one area, however, where this film manages to be different yet equal to the original, it is in the post-climactic resolution. Lee's ending is significantly more plausible than Park's. Then again, Park's film was all about audacity. It is almost worthy of a case study, how the exact same plot can seem audaciously original and nerve-wracking for one film, and cloyingly far-fetched for another.
Brolin tries hard as Joe, but he's ultimately always Brolin. Elizabeth Olsen, who's been out of sight for a while, is refreshing as Marie, Joe's unlikely companion on his quest for answers. She looks simple yet lovely, and it also seems like she has finally learnt how to step out of the cutesy Michelle we've always known her as, and slip into a real adult character. Sharlto Copley, seen earlier this year as one of the antagonists in Elysium, seems quite adept at playing the manic villain, even though his isn't a significant value addition to this film.
It doesn't help at all that the Indian censors have clearly mutilated the film as well. A lot of the violence and sex scenes have been chopped off, and though there is still a substantial amount of those in the film, the bits that have been cut were portions that truly held the emotional crux of the story.
But, really, even including those wouldn't have been able to substantially lift what is essentially a mediocre, disappointing film. The next time Hollywood wants to attempt a remake of an Asian thriller, they should just check with Martin Scorsese on how it is done, first.
This review is by guest reviewer Pradeep Menon. Pradeep is a filmmaker and a dreamer. He loves books, rain, winters, tea and his parents. Cinema, however, is the only truth he believes in. He breathes and bleeds film, mostly in hues of saffron, white, green and blue. You can watch his short films at www.youtube.com/cyberpradeep.
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