American remakes of foreign films… I occasionally struggle to understand the motivation behind the genre. Obviously, classics like The Magnificent Seven (a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) hold up on their own and justify themselves by situating themselves as separate artistic entities, with certain changes demanded by the cultural differences and shift in setting, basically what you’d want from any adaptation. Then you get some movies that feel as if the primary purpose behind the project was essentially an elaborate dubbing. Let’s remove the subtitles and put the whole thing in English, so audiences won’t have to read. I guess… I sort of understand that for certain kinds of films. Like, if you’re adapting a stupid action movie or a stupid comedy where the goal is really to lift the burden of thought from the audience, then I see why you’d want to eliminate reading. If you’re adapting a gritty, disturbing crime thriller that no popular audience could ever possibly be interested in, then you have to do something a little extra. Of course, some directors just aren’t accustomed to trying.
The Plot: Meet the new boy, same as the Oldboy.
Spike Lee has made good movies. He has also made reprehensible garbage heaps. Pain me as it might to say it, his “interpretation” of Chan-wook Park’s 2003 Korean mystery falls firmly and irrevocably in the latter category. Part of that has to do with the fact that remaking Oldboy as an American movie is an inherently bad idea. Part of it is that remaking a movie with objectively perfect direction might set the bar a bit too high. An equal or perhaps greater part of that is that Lee has seemingly lost his way as a filmmaker. Directors all have highs and lows, they can lose focus or stumble a bit, make a bad movie here and there; it happens. Mostly, though, they manage to retain a shred of artistic competence. Confession: I did not like Bamboozled, and I think that the advent of digital cinema really broke Spike Lee. It’s sort of as if he thought that with the advanced technology, the director doesn’t have to try as hard; the camera will do most of the work. Shot for shot, his Oldboy is just a big ole mess. It’s like he thought the little red light on the camera meant that it wasn’t recording, like he told his actors to just mess around and run through the scene while he got situated and tested out different angles, and then, when he’s made up his mind, that’s when you turn off the red light on the camera and do it for real. And again, you can tell that Park put a crazy amount of thought into every single shot in the original. The comparison hurts.
As far as adapting the actual story goes, I get the impression that whoever was in charge of that was one of those people who liked the original mainly for the twist. That’s a fine twist, I admit, but it’s not what makes the movie good. The fundamental flaw with this remake is a complete misreading of its primary source material. As far as alteration to the plot, they manage to change just enough to rob the story of any semblance of substance or meaning.
I think the best example of this is how they aim to shock with violence by ramping it up somewhat from how it is in the original. If you’ve seen Oldboy, you might find that statement kind of bewildering, because it’s already an incredibly violent film. Well, Spike Lee gives us more blood and a higher body count, but the time he devotes to action probably should have been spent on character development. Though more extreme in sheer quantity, the violence lacks weight because at the end of the day, I just don’t give a damn about any of the people involved. Granted, I needed to wait for the initial mental and emotional injuries to wear off before I recognized this, but the first Oldboy has a pretty decent sense of humor to it. The people in that movie are real people. They have highs and lows, despite circumstances. The main character here, played by Josh Brolin, is so exhaustingly grim and spiritless that I not only kind of root against him at times, but seriously question why Elizabeth Olsen would feel any obligation to help him with his investigation, let alone develop a personal relationship with him.
Sometimes I watch movies like this—movies that I flat-out hate—but I tell myself it wasn’t a waste of time because at least I got an article out of it. Like, for example, I truly, passionately despised Under the Skin, but it wasn’t too serious a waste of time because I wrote about it. I hadn’t seen anything else that week, and I needed to review something. Boom. Gap filled. Plus, I’ve been told a couple times that some people really enjoy reading my negative articles. So, at the very least, I did get to write an article this week thanks to Oldboy. Although… you know, I’ve never missed a Sunday post since I started, but if I knew what I was getting into with this film, and I had to choose between sitting through it again and breaking my perfect, 2+ year streak… well, I’d be torn.