Spike Lee: Oldboy (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
23Aug/150

Spike Lee: Oldboy (2013)

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Whatever Joe Doucett feels the world owes him, it's clear he's not getting it.  Mistreating his coworkers, hitting on his client's girlfriend, getting blackout drunk and yelling at his friends - nothing satisfies.  But one night he's snatched from the street and placed in solitary confinement for over a decade.  Now free, he's challenged by his captor to discover why Joe was imprisoned for so long, and who would do this to him.  Spike Lee's 2013 film is a remake of the acclaimed 2003 original directed by Park Chan-wook.

This fuckin' worldSo we have come to it—Spike Lee's remake of one of my favorite movies of all time. It would be easy (and possibly more fun) to just pick apart Oldboy, but the real sin here is that Spike hasn't made an especially bad movie, just a dull and unmemorable one. The fashionable response to Hollywood's continuously remaking classics and even recent foreign films is to decry each effort as unnecessary and lacking in originality—which they often are—before they even hit theaters. I'm not totally sold on that response. The stream of remakes and reboots isn't going to stop, so why not at least give those spearheaded by interesting directors and writers a chance to spin a story in a new way?

Before the Oldboy remake was released in 2013, I wondered what Spike's attraction to the material would have been—would he add sociopolitical resonance that wasn't part of the original, or relate the slow discovery of both the protagonist's and antagonist's crimes to the way we repress national history? Maybe stylistically we'd get a radical departure from Park Chan-wook's film that would necessitate a U.S. updating. Instead we got a few interesting new touches (mostly coming from Josh Brolin), a few unnecessary/bad ones, and Michael Imperioli's hair.

The main points of discussion for me with this version of Oldboy revolve around the various contexts Spike establishes for the characters—both Joe Doucett (Brolin) before he's imprisoned, and the mysterious antagonist played (bafflingly, hilariously badly) by Sharlto Copley. We should look at this version as its own film than holding it up unfairly against the near-perfect original—but there are a few points where comparing it to the original, and the changes Spike made to the story, helps me understand why this version is so underwhelming in the end.

Without just jumping into everything all at once, what were your initial thoughts?How may we make your stay betterMy first impression was covered in my original Like review, where I first shared many of the same concerns you bring up here.  But that was almost two years ago now, and this project has given me a greater appreciation for the texture and theming of Spike's films, and repeat viewings of Chan-wook's Oldboy have lessened my appreciation for the original.  I don't think either film is a masterpiece, in Spike's case because the start of the second act halts the momentum generated by his excellent extension of the imprisonment sequence, and in Chan-wook's case because the other parts of the "Vengeance trilogy", Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, have more interesting moral implications than the carefully constructed revenge plot of Chan-wook's Oldboy.

Comparisons are almost unavoidable so I will do my best not to compare the two as they're radically different movies in the grand scheme.  What grips me most about Spike's Oldboy is just how much of a casually racist bastard Joe Doucett is.  It's not enough that he talks over and down to his black receptionist, but that he has the gall to assume sexual dominance over the girlfriend of a potential black business partner.  The specter of past and present racial injustice is all over the opening act of Oldboy with the overt in Doucett's reactions to the black people he comes across and in the bell boy which watches Doucett during his many years in the prison.  Spike makes a good visual connection between the false "happy to serve" image of the black bellhop and the wardrobe and facial similarities with Doucett's captor (Samuel Jackson).  The plot makes literal the oft-repeated notion that the only way black people could only be racist against whites is if blacks enslaved and robbed whites of hundreds of years of social and cultural development.  Only in this case it's twenty years, and despite the setbacks there 's still a white benefactor, no matter how sadistic, ready to support Doucett when he is set free.

Spike's Oldboy suffers when this angle disappears so that we can go through the mechanisms of the plot.  But when it returns it does so in spades.  Jackson wears a red zoot suit reminiscent of Denzel Washington's "I'm black and I'm proud" wardrobe from early Malcolm X.  The dialogue dances around this too, with Jackson saying, "Reparations must be made" of this racist white man who hurt him and his business.  What's interesting here is how diverse Jackson's crew is, and how obsessed with racial purity Adrian Pryce's (Copley) family is.  That's one key change from Chan-wook's Oldboy I liked a lot, as the somewhat innocuous rumor accidentally started by Oh Dae-su in the original becomes a twisted moral landscape of the racist and sexist Joe Doucett accidentally betraying the white racial purity of Pryce's family.

It's avenues like this where Spike's Oldboy is rich for reading, and I'm curious if this helps sway your opinion at all or if it's still too little too late.The horrorTiny Kyle CommentaryYou're bringing up a lot of small incidental touches that I wish were brought to the foreground more—if Spike wasn't so shackled to the original plot, I think he could have done some really interesting things with the themes you pointed out. Jackson's character has some interesting implications, but none of that is essential to the larger story—his character could be swapped out with a generic goon and the overall implications and themes of the movie would remain unchanged. The movie's certainly conscious of racial subjugation and power structures, but it's not really doing much with them.

I do like how Spike made Doucett an entitled asshole, and a pathetic one at that. We don't have any trouble understanding how someone would want to punish and imprison Joe, and while that takes some suspense out of the initial setup, it creates an occasion for Spike to imbue his eventual search for his captor with more than a hint of self-redemption as opposed to simple revenge.

He complicates this (and Brolin deserves more credit than he ever got here as well) by turning Doucett into a something one step shy of a wild animal upon his release. His first act outside of the prison—while chasing a woman he recognizes from right before he went into captivity—is to brutally beat a group of guys playing soccer, who perceive him to be harassing the woman. Objectively, the guys have reason to get involved here—while they respond with preemptive violence, one of them punching Joe before he can explain himself, they're far from the “bad guys” in the situation. So when Doucett proceeds to not just fight them, but animalistically beat them—he's shown slamming one into the ground headfirst, killing him or at least breaking his neck—it complicates our image of him as a man broken and somewhat reformed by his time in the prison. A few scenes later he wakes up to find Elizabeth Olsen's character—who's just provided some medical help in the back of his old friend Chucky's bar—reading his letters to his daughter, and his immediate response is jump up, grab her, and threaten her.

Some of this is inherent in the story: the guy's been imprisoned for 20 years without any other human contact, so he's going to have reverted to some more primal impulses and behaviors. But by setting him up as a misogynistic, racist, entitled asshole in the first place, Spike plays with our perception of Joe from the beginning. This works well until around the mid-point, where the demands of the plot necessitate that we dump that previous baggage and empathize with Doucett as a more traditional protagonist. As he and Marie (Olsen) start to track down clues and piece together the mystery behind his imprisonment, we get glimpses into his past, and even as they reveal that he was always a misogynist bully, the POV of the movie puts us behind Joe.

That's why the ending of Spike's Oldboy doesn't work for me—we're expected to see Doucett (the way he ultimately sees himself) as a danger, a  person who can't help but damage those around him. His recognition of this fact—ultimately precipitated as it may be by external forces—and the damage that knowing the truth would cause to Marie is why he ultimately decides to re-imprison himself, and in doing so he finally gets the redemption forecast in the initial setup. But this redemption feels false, like screenwriter Mark Protosevich didn't know how to really deal with the implications of Joe's past decisions. It gives him (and the audience) a neat wrap-up without any actual insight, and that was the thing that surprised me most coming from Spike.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryA few things here, because we're evaluating Oldboy on the basis of an edit which neither Spike nor Brolin approved of.  There are thirty minutes missing which were cut out to make Oldboy hit more of a traditional action film timeline.  Whether those 30 minutes would have brought the positive elements we agree on to primary focus is probably a fruitless path overall, but something to consider when talking about the Oldboy which was released.

What seems to be missing, aside from Joe's final decision to imprison himself, is a moment where we watch him recognize himself for the monster he's become.  He's awfully passive in the way he watches his past unfurl in front of him at the private school, and when he finally meets with Adrian for the climactic showdown he's not torn apart because of what he's done to everyone, but specifically what he's done to his daughter.  This fits in with the privileged space Joe occupies and I love how Spike visualizes the incest Joe has unwittingly committed with his daughter over Adrian's body as a projection.  I like the duality here, because Adrian is a primitive creature in the way he views sex and purity, and what he's done to Joe is make him the worst of both the mannered snake-like affectations of Adrian's family relationships with Joe's uncontrollable violent impulses.

Which I suppose makes this as good a time as any to discuss the one thing I'm absolutely certain we disagree on - Copley's performance.  I love it, I loved it the first time I saw him peel back the curtain on each reward like a game show host, and I love the way he seems to be in religious ecstasy when he finally shatters Joe with the truth.  Copley nailed a very specific character type which couldn't have been easy to come up with as his extremely fey mannerisms and vocal delivery is precisely what I'd think of if a New England blue blood type was raised in the lap of luxury and determined to keep the blood line pure.  Much like the way Spike visually overlaps the sins of Adrian and Joe, Adrian's affectations are entirely the result of racist nepotism.

However, like you pointed out, there aren't many scenes which outline this directly and it requires a lot of reading between the lines, it's damn effective in the broad scheme of Spike's Oldboy.One versus many reduxTiny Kyle CommentaryPart of my issue with Copley's performance is that I can't tell to what extent he's deliberately hamming it up for the camera—everything is so exaggerated that I can't take him seriously as a real person. From his nasally, humming monotone to his permanently furrowed brow, he seems TOO stereotypically crazy to function independently. I may have believed him as a dark, live-action version of The Count from Sesame Street, but not so much as the mastermind behind Doucett's imprisonment.

However, I also think the way Spike establishes Doucett's original crime (and its effect on Adrian) works against the final act, which is probably at the root of our disagreement here. The first thing you hit on already: we don't feel significant internal change (or much regret even) in Joe as he realizes and remembers the events that spurred Adrian's revenge. Spike even does a few things to minimize the blame we can place on him:

1. It's made clear that Joe didn't know who Adrian's sister was having sex with when he saw her all those years ago in the greenhouse at the school. His crime was to start a misogynistic rumor, but his misogyny isn't what he's being punished for—the incestuous acts Joe's made to commit don't have any direct bearing on his initial crime. His punishment is that he has to live with the knowledge that Marie is his daughter, but as the events are related, he isn't directly culpable for revealing the nature of Adrian and his sister's relationships with their father.
2. Joe is shown tormenting Adrian's sister in a flashback before he remembers what he witnessed in the greenhouse, but in the flashback we get following that revelation—after he started the rumors that led to Adrian's family having to withdraw from school and leave the country—it's Chucky who's shown to be ridiculing her and calling her a “whore,” not Joe (echoed in a scene in which Chucky meets his demise in the present).
3. The scene that eventually reveals the incestuous nature of Adrian's family presents all involved as one-dimensional sex robots—the kids are literally just waiting in rooms for their father to come have sex with them. We get that Adrian's utopic recollection of his family is shaped by and predicated on detestable manipulation and abuse, but this also positions the murder-suicide of Adrian's father as an unforeseeable and accidental bi-product of Joe's initial crime.

Since Adrian and his sister are positioned as having been victims before Joe bumbled onto the scene, and Joe's offense is shown very carefully to have been one of casual misogyny that had the unintended effect of revealing a much more insidious and calculated crime (whether that's the incestuous family relationships, the murders committed by Adrian's father, or both), his role in the tragedy is reduced to that of an ancillary player. All of this taken together has the effect of revealing the true depth of Adrian's psychosis, but in doing so it reduces the emphasis on Doucett's own culpability in his eventual punishment.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryI've wanted to avoid it, but I think comparing the private school revelations between the Chan-wook and Spike versions of Oldboy is what's needed to get to the overall problem.  In the original Oldboy we get a rippling effect from Oh Dae-su's rumor, which we know is true, and the immediate emotional effect it had on Evergreen.  Spike's Oldboy establishes Adrian as such a psychopath before Joe spread the information (and we're still relying on hearsay that he really did spread the information since we don't see that) that the racist and misogynistic crimes Joe is guilty of are dulled.

Adrian, compared to Evergreen, seems like he would have been psychotically obsessed with Joe even if Joe got dirt on his father's shoes instead of spreading the information which led to the double-murder / suicide.  As innocuous as Oh Dae-su's rumor was in Chan-wook's Oldboy, we get the visual and emotional progression perfectly.  Spike's is lacking this, so some emotional distance is to be expected.

But since I've opened the door I vowed not to, I want to make a positive comparison as well.  The hammer fight, Oldboy's calling card to western audiences, receives a tonally and stylistically excellent do-over in Spike's version.  Chan-wook discussed how he envisioned the original hammer fight as a side-scrolling action game with the consequences of the violence intact.  Spike takes the same visual philosophy but makes the arena a 3D fighting game instead of a side-scrolling one, with the camera hovering over Joe's arena as he mercilessly destroys each of his opponents.  Keeping the camera just so far away let's us see the calculated brutality of Joe's actions, not desperation as with Oh Dae-su, exemplified by the break in the fight when Joe is surrounded and chooses to kill the already wounded man in front of him instead of trying to escape.  It's a stellar scene in an admittedly uneven film, and one of the moments which Spike definitely rises to the challenge of Chan-wook's original.

But before we sign off for another documentary next week - please tell me - do you have any idea what lady thongulous is doing in Spike's Oldboy? Or was she an extra from She Hate Me who showed up late and Spike had to put her in something?Our mystery assassinTiny Kyle CommentaryI have no idea what she is doing in the movie. I have a feeling it was an instance of someone in the pre-production process throwing out a “Hey, what if he has a hot Asian bodyguard?” to wild acclaim.

I also glossed over a comment you made earlier that I want to bring up before we sign off—that Spike had to trim 30 minutes for the theatrical release. One of my fascinations has always been the rare movies that actually have legitimate reasons for being released again in “director's cuts.” Usually this is a money-grab, restoring footage that was cut for good reason, but sometimes you get those instances in which a director's cut reveals a wholly different film. (Ridley Scott has two of these, with both Blade Runner and Kingdom of Heaven).

For a director who started off with small projects that guaranteed complete autonomy, I can see where studio interference of that level could have disastrous effects. Oldboy certainly isn't a disaster, but if Spike ever gets to release his original version, I want to give it a watch.

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Posted by Andrew

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