| March 1, 2014

I am not against remakes.  Remakes of horror movies seem to be more successful since they’re less about story and more about style (The Hills Have Eyes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), but other genres can work when the subtext is updated for a new generation (The Manchurian Candidate).  Remakes only become a problem when they’re such a blatant cash grab, a literal equation of property plus director plus lead talent equals profit.  Let Me In, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Carrie are not so much movies as they are commodities; it’s Hollywood’s idea of product placement, only instead of a Whopper or iPod, you’re getting another movie.

So we have Spike Lee’s Oldboy, only Lee’s name is less that of an author than primary culprit.  Co-conspirators include Josh Brolin and Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, as well as a Japanese manga on which the movies are loosely inspired.  After twenty years in private prison, perpetual lout and professional drunk Joe Doucett sets out to find out who imprisoned him, with the why coming in as an afterthought.  Brolin receives help on his quest from old friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and sympathetic nurse Marie (Elizabeth Olsen).  Other notable faces include Sharlto Copley as The Stranger and Samuel L. Jackson in a throwaway role as the private prison warden.

Avoiding comparisons to the original are impossible.  While not brilliant, Chan-wook’s Oldboy remains an entertaining thriller/body-horror because it’s more interested in the psychological torment of the protagonist.  The question of why he’s imprisoned is just as prevalent in the story, if not more so than the pursuit of who is responsible.  Brolin, pictured as remorseless animal at the start, remains much the same throughout, hammering past legions of thugs and less concerned for the truth and more for simpleminded vengeance.  Copley’s villain even has to remind Doucett – and us – why we chose to watch this ordeal other than for cheap sex and violence.  Unfortunately, Copley’s grand scheme – and the movie in general – is overshadowed by his ridiculous facial hair and lousy accent.  He’s sort of an effeminate European meets billionaire James Bond-villain who could be Spike Lee’s answer for all the negative black stereotypes that still exist in Hollywood, or a poke at Red State America’s backward view of foreigners.  Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

I would love to view Oldboy as some sort of comment on American politics, with Brolin a stand-in for every imperialistic, anti-intellectual, single-minded decision this country has ever made (especially given his previous role in W), but that would be wishful thinking.  Oldboy contains about as much artistic value and insight as a Burger King commercial, but masks it in gratuitous sex and violence.  I’m not at all squeamish, but I just don’t find it necessary to see footage of Brolin’s wife being raped as proof of his innocence when we already know he didn’t do it in the first place.  Thrillers (even if borderline horror) need to be more calculating in what we can and can’t see as an audience.  Oldboy is just not subtle or even smart enough to work.  Spike Lee is a director who works entirely from the heart, and this has worked brilliantly in He Got Game, Jungle Fever, and Do the Right Thing.  Taking the same approach to a revenge fantasy remake is just not Lee’s style.

Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Sony Pictures on March 4

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