"Be it a rock or grain of sand, in water they sink as the same." - Quotes from Oldboy (2003)
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! SORRY IF YOU DON'T WANT EM, STOP RIGHT NOW! HAMMER TO YOUR TEMPLE IF YOU CONTINUE!
I still remember a key line from Roger Ebert's review of the original 2003 Chan-wook Park adaptation of the Manga comic by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchia (still unread by me). What he wrote in his 4-star review: "Oldboy is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare." That, for me, is a key difference between the two films, the first (and winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004) and the new film (the latest "Spike Lee Joint", though this time, maybe for the first time, it says a 'Spike Lee Film' on the poster - guess he's gotten to the age where it's time to give up advertising his films like a young pot-draggin' dude... but I digress I guess).
In the story of Oh Dae-su in Park's film, it's a realm of and greek tragedy, where a man gets kidnapped, put in a prison shaped like a motel 15 years, and though he tries to escape he is just "let go" by his captor, leading to a story of a mystery wrapped in a revenge inside enough taboos to choke an elephant. Choi Min-Sink played the title role and his performance, where he dug in deep to the bottom of his being and ripped himself apart on screen (moth physically and mentally, mostly physically until near the end when the two rip-aparts converge), and Park's direction brings sweeping camera-movements, narration (not unlike Wong Kar-Wai films) and high-quality musical score (parts by Vivaldi), it all somehow came together as this violent high opera with touches of poetry. Whether that makes it sound pretentious or not I leave to your judgment (see the trailer and some clips below).
In the story of Joe Doucet in Lee's film - what Lee calls a "reinterpretation" not a remake, and even equating it to doing 'My Favorite Things' over again by John Coltrane - this time it's 20 years, and the same circumstances, more or less, fly after Mr. Doucet is let go from a trunk in the middle of a field. The same level of high art infusing its pulp fiction roots are not quite there, mostly because, I think, Lee and his screenwriter Mark Protosevich, they're more interested in exploring the surface elements, for the most part, than digging deep into the rancid heart of the matter of two men in this face-off. But, it should be said, that 'for the most part' references a fact that people who go in to Lee's film possibly prepared to hate it in advance don't take into account:
Lee is still going to do things *his* way, and, initially, it works. For those who know how the film opens originally, Oh Dae-Su is just a drunken mess in a police station waiting area. In jump-cuts he flails about, talks about his daughter's birthday being today, and going between being a funny drunk to an annoying one (Min-Sink really sells this as well). We don't know much else about the man except that, perhaps on this night, he's just had a few too many, but he looks forward to seeing his daughter and even gets to talk to her on the phone - before he is sort of snatched away while Park does a circular-dolly-shot on a phone booth.
Joe Doucet (Josh Brolin), meanwhile, gets a bit more of a character-background before the big imprisonment happens, and I have to think this is by design of the filmmakers knowing the source lacked such information - this protagonist is, frankly, a louse, drinking while working as a marketing salesman, flirting with his client's girlfriend, and just getting really obnoxious in the street. Lee employs his quasi-trademark camera-attached-to-a-character as Joe roams around in his drunken stupor, crying, yelling, being an ass, and it's not much fun to watch this. But is it interesting?
Yes, up to a point, at least in a basic-screenwriting-let's-show-who-this-guy-is-fully sense. There's not mystery here, as opposed to Oh Dae-Su. But let's see how it goes. Then it gets to the motel room. Here is where it gets a bit trickier on Lee's/Protosevich's end (mostly involving a TV show called "Mysteries of Crime", but I'll get to that in a bit), but surprisingly here is also the strongest section of the film.
Both Brolin, as he gives his tremendous all in the realization that he's been taken prisoner (it doesn't happen all at once, it's more like, "I wake up, go to the bathroom, open the curtain and - where's the window, phone, door-knob, and what's with the dumplings being given under my door?") and from there, it does follow the story of Park's film, but Lee expands it, finds his own room for surreal nightmare images - in this case, in an odd in-joke to Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train where he played the same role, Lee's brother Cinque Lee plays a bellhop who is all in Joe's head, and on the wall of his bedroom - and makes this room into another sinister character with its fake parts and kung-fu/work-out images on TV and Brolin himself, going from pudgy alcoholic to sober, and buff, man of action, writing his list of men he has possibly wronged in his life and letters to his daughter.
Somehow, this section shows Lee doing what he does best, but in the same framework. In this case it is a 'reinterpretation', and it's very satisfying to see a director and actor like Brolin, who can be hit or miss (for every No Country for Old Men there's Jonah Hex), so in sync and finding their own voice. This is not to decry or lessen the impact of what Park and Min-Sink so in their film, but in a way that goes by much quicker in terms of screen-time, and through only some iconic images (Min-Sink's wide-toothed-insane grin with frizzy hair, the ants crawling out of his arm like Un chien Andalou) is it so striking.
More impactful is when Oh Dae-Su escapes and is on the roof of a building with a man and his dog, and holds him by tie-length from falling off the building as he tells his story. This, as opposed to Lee's film, where as soon as Joe pops out he lays waste to a few football players (?!) for just being in his way. Yikes. And it's into the two acts where suddenly, but distinctly, Lee's film loses its vigor, doesn't have the same "umph" (in thinking about it more a day later, it's actually a big component due to the music being just a standard thriller soundtrack - this comparing to the searing tracks Park laid down), and even the acting from Brolin is just serviceable. It's after this, too, that the two films' stories just converge just too much to ignore, even if one has seen the original once.
And if you haven't seen the Korean film, seeing Lee's film is like getting a lot of kinda-cool set pieces (hey, he's fighting ALL those guys in two hallways, how awesome is that! and Samuel L. Jackson is here as the prison warden... okay, that is legitimately cool, any time Lee and Jackson have paired up - Jungle Fever, Do the Right Thing - it just clicks - hell, imagine if Sam Jackson had been the lead instead of Brolin, THAT would've been challenging), yet always tinged with a pulp nihilism that doesn't have a lot of heart at the center.
It's hard to describe how to see that difference in the heart of the two films, especially in Lee who many times in his career where's his heart on his sleeve for his characters to take on (for better and for worse). But you just see it and feel it, and it becomes more of a distilled, basic thriller (even with its twisty and brutal sections), just taken on its own terms. Well-shot? Sure. It's Sean Bobbitt, who is right off of Steve McQueen's films and can, and usually does, bring the high-crane-shots and wild close-ups Lee enjoys employing (though, as with the original, my one critique of the original, when it comes time for Brolin and his companion, here played by Elizabeth Olsen, to see into the past of the Evergreen Academy, they're in the same space watching the flashback, and it's just a bit tired/cliche for my tastes - though even still Parker brings more artistic integrity to those bits).
Should I keep comparing both films so much? Frankly, it's hard not to, especially when one sees that with some little exceptions - this time Joe's friend-on-the-outside isn't some guy in an internet lab but a bar owner, and the 'girl' by his side is a nurse instead of a chef, meant, I suppose, to elevate her being of a kind and gentle use to the world where Joe previously was not - so much of the two stories is the same.... well, not exactly, sorta. Here's what it is, and this is where we get into the major spoilers here.
In the original film, as you may recall, a heavy dollup of that good ol' incest was in there with the villain, Lee Woo-Jin (Yu Ji-Tae), as he had sex with his sister, got spied on by a young Oh Dae-Su, and the rumors spread about not only the sex but a pregnancy (in an added sick twist, when Lee Woo-Jin is doing his villain-monologuing bit, he tries to make it that she wasn't pregnant, but probably, we can guess, she was), and thereafter she killed herself. The revenge Lee Woo-Jin has plotted all these 15 years?
Getting Mr. Dae-Su and the lovely Mi-do (Hye Jyong-Kang) together and fall in love - this despite, actually, by manipulation, are father and daughter. It was one of those dastardly twists that you didn't see coming because, well, who had seen a movie quite like Oldboy before anyway? Suddenly it's here that the reverse-Elektra machinations were taken, and where Min-Sink goes to town begging for his daughter never to find out - one of those scenes where you just are on the edge of your seat not knowing what he or his dastardly ex-'Oldboy'-schoolmate is going to do next - and the end point is still, to this day, stomach churning (to put it simply, he won't say another word about anything ever again).
When seeing just the trailer, nevermind the film itself, to Lee's film, if one knew the big twist-reveal from the original film, the new film seemed to indicate this would *not* be the case this time, that Joe Doucet was seeing his daughter on TV being interviewed about her mother being murdered by him (yeah, it's part of the equation), so, you know, why on Earth would he have sex with her this time around? Let's say without getting too much into the contrivances in both stories - though in Lee's film meant to be more "real world" than Park's, perhaps - that Joe does, in fact, 'get with' his daughter, and it turns out to be the same god-forsaken scenario as before of it being the first girl to come into contact with the recently-release, and it connecting back to the TV show Joe watched with wide-teary eyes.
I get that the director and writer are trying to make some point here about TV's ability to manipulate, but the show itself looks too fake - and the villain, played by Sharlto Copley as a fey-Vincent Price, far as I could tell - and it becomes too obvious when Joe just happens to watch the show at a key moment and see his 'daughter' at such and such a time. It's a cheap fake-out designed to distract fans of the original from thinking it will be just like it was before (in other words, it is, but it isn't, but it is, sigh), and yet I would think for people who have no awareness of the original film, it's just a stupid device that, especially once revealed, just relishes in the contrivance a bit more.
Then again, one has to wonder after leaving Lee's film is all of what is translated from Korea to America in these stories works entirely. Having this intricate criminal prison run by thugs through a whole building (just a floor as I could tell in Park's version) is still dark fantasy, but somehow it works in that society. Could such an underground network be run in the states - right in Spike Lee's New York city - without it being revealed? And then other questions arise in this story of Joe Doucet: why don't cops get called when Copley and his thugs come into the bar run by Michael Imperioli?
How does on amass and keep such a fortune as a slimy weasel such as Copley's character - Lee Woo-Jin looking much more like a respectable businessman with just a *whole* lot of scars under the shiny surface? And yet with all of these complaints... Lee's film isn't *bad*, exactly. It is just underwhelming. Which is a shame for this director since even his failures (She Hate Me, Miracle at St. Anna, Bamboozled) still are interesting to watch for how far such a filmmaker with burning, raging talent will go.
Though he's cast the film relatively well - only Copley over-does it (though he did as such in Elysium) - with Brolin never boring and Olsen being always a sincere presence, and of course Samuel L. Jackson is that motherf***er - and he shoots it well. But where's the music to make it rise up into something else? Why be so reverent to the original material, again, the film, I don't know yet about the comic, though I've heard incest isn't figured into that source, when there's more room to explore with such a unique revenge-nightmare? I don't know. If nothing else it gives the director, mostly now doing (GREAT!) documentaries and mixed-to-good-to-okay dramatic films, a chance to flex muscles doing VERY violent set-pieces and gruesome moments of drama.
Maybe this was, simply, one of those films that did not scream out
Instead, Park's film remains the masterpiece, the sorrow song that rests in a realm that is like our world but crafts its own vision of descending into the pits of hell, while Lee tries to elevate it back to Earth and the flaws in the ointment becoming clearer as the story progresses to its most artificial point. Or, to put it in simpler terms: one film has a live squid being ripped apart. Another just gives it a glance.