Doing the Wrong Thing

Spike Lee's version of Oldboy gets lost in translation

Spike Lee's version of Oldboy gets lost in translation

There are likely two main audiences for Spike Lee’s new film, Oldboy: those who are fans of the director’s films and can’t wait to see what he does next, and fans of the original Korean film, hoping the American version does the first one justice. Neither group is likely to be satisfied.

The film follows Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a man who seems to be living a normal, if wasted, life until he’s kidnapped and forced to live in a room with no door, windows or communication to the outside world. Twenty years later, he’s released under similarly mysterious circumstances, intent on finding not only his imprisoner but also the daughter he left behind.

 If you essentially tell the viewers what’s going to happen next, there’s little to keep them invested in the story as a whole.

Joe is helped along the way by Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen), a volunteer healthcare worker who takes a shine to him, and longtime friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli). But every layer that he uncovers seems to bring him no closer to his goal, for which time is running out.

The central mystery of the film is solid, one that Lee teases out effectively while Joe remains in his undeserved prison. But once Joe is set loose in the world again, Lee has more difficulty maintaining that same tone.

The biggest issue is that he telegraphs a couple of revelations too much, including the major shocker of the entire film. If you essentially tell the viewers what’s going to happen next, there’s little to keep them invested in the story as a whole.

The other big issue goes back to what kind of audience Lee is trying to serve with the remake. Although Lee has never shied away from violence, the ultra-violence found in Oldboy is definitely more a signature of Asian cinema. His attempts at replicating that fall short because they tend to come out of nowhere, giving them little context and little purpose.

Brolin does a decent job in the lead role, but he’s undone by a lack of effective makeup techniques. If the filmmakers can’t be bothered to a) use different actors for periods 20 years apart or b) properly age the actor who portrays both periods, it makes it difficult to go along for the ride or believe his performance all the way through.

Olsen, Imperioli, Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley all have some interesting moments, but they too are done in by a story that collapses under its own weight. Copley, so effective in District 9 and Elysium, devolves into caricature as the film goes along.

Oldboy is neither a great entry into Lee’s canon nor an effective remake of the original Korean version. As such, it sits in sort of a middle ground, finding a space where it’s likely to be forgotten almost as soon as it hits the theaters.

Josh Brolin in Oldboy
Josh Brolin has much to atone for and avenge in Oldboy. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/FilmDistrict
Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen in Oldboy
Brolin's Joe Doucett gets help from Elizabeth Olsen's Marie Sebastian in Oldboy. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/FilmDistrict
Josh Brolin and Samuel L. Jackson in Oldboy
Samuel L. Jackson is just one of many who run afoul of Josh Brolin in Oldboy. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/FilmDistrict
Josh Brolin in Oldboy
Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen in Oldboy
Josh Brolin and Samuel L. Jackson in Oldboy