As a recent New York Times profile of Spike Lee demonstrated, the “Malcolm X” director does not lack confidence, whether he’s slamming Quentin Tarantino and “The Help”s’ Tate Taylor or noting that he knew he was going to be a talented filmmaker before he even landed in film school.
It’s good he has a healthy ego, because his remake of the South Korean revenge film “Oldboy” is dividing critics, with many complaining that the blood-soaked tale is unworthy of his prodigious gifts.
The film, which stars Josh Brolin as an alcoholic man who is imprisoned for two decades and framed for murder, is a reinterpretation of Park Chan-wook‘s 2003 masterpiece. It opens Wednesday and currently holds a drab 43 percent “rotten” rating on critics aggregrator Rotten Tomatoes.
TheWrap’s Todd Gilchrist seemed torn between praising Lee’s visual inventiveness and faulting the picture for lacking a strong emotional undercurrent. The fight sequences embody bravura staging and filming, but Gilchrist felt that despite Brolin’s physical transformation, the Oscar nominee doesn’t do much with the role.
“Brolin gamely gains and loses weight as a signifier of his physical transformation, but other than the circumference of his gut, Joe seems scarcely 30 days older at the end of his imprisonment than at the beginning,” Gilchrist wrote. “Moreover, there’s an absence of insight – of some crucial epiphany – that drives his post-release choices.”
Stephanie Zacharek was less forgiving. In a harsh assessment, the Village Voice critic declared the film DOA and faulted Brolin for giving a somnambulistic performance as a man looking to unleash bloody hell on the people who locked him up.
“This ‘Oldboy’ is all mechanics, boiling the original story down to its central plot points, and it screws up even those — the movie’s big reveal, an unnecessarily complicated revision of the original’s, barely makes sense,” Zacharek wrote. “‘Oldboy’ doesn’t even feel like a work-for-hire project, the kind of challenge Lee might take on because he happened to be free and could use the money.”
In the New York Times, A.O. Scott acknowledged that Lee added some stylistic flourishes to the on-screen carnage, but ultimately deemed the remake a pointless exercise.
“If you have seen the earlier version, you can occupy yourself with point-by-point comparisons,” Scott wrote. “If not, you may find yourself swerving between bafflement and mild astonishment, wondering how a movie that works so hard to generate intensity and surprise can feel so routine and bereft of genuine imagination.”
Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune argued that Lee’s signature dolly shots don’t bring much to the proceedings. He was at a loss to explain what drew the director to the story to begin with. In fairness, he didn’t seem to be much of a fan of the original, likening it to cinematic sadism.
“The revenge in ‘Oldboy’ is neither sweet nor sour; it’s just drab,” Phillips wrote.
Fanboys may be disappointed by Lee’s lack of fealty to the original, but “Oldboy” benefits from his tweaks, Ty Burr wrote in the Boston Globe. It’s faster, for one thing, and Brolin brings an impressive intensity to the proceedings, he argued.
“It’s definitely not for the squeamish, but where the first movie possessed an elegant nihilism that raised it above convention, the remake becomes more genre-bound as it goes,” Burr wrote. “If Park’s film is the work of a brilliant but soulless surgeon, Lee’s is that of a gifted provocateur amusing himself until the next real thing comes around.”
For Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times, the sex and brutality have a liberating effect on Lee. “Oldboy” may lack the punch of Lee’s films like “Do the Right Thing,” but the genre exercise benefits by being less hectoring than some of his recent efforts.
“This is far from Lee’s best work — there are ways in which logic completely fails and the movie becomes unintentionally absurd,” Sharkey wrote. “But the stagnant feeling that was creeping into some of the director’s more recent socially-centric work is gone. ‘Oldboy’ suggests a filmmaker doing almost as much soul-searching as the main character. There is a brashness in the risks taken, the very imperfections revealing an artist finding new inspiration.”