Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, James Ransone, Max Casella, Linda Emond, Lance Reddick
Plot: Joe Doucett (Brolin) an advertising executive is kidnapped and imprisoned in an isolated hotel room. His only contact to the outside world being through the TV in his room, Joe soon discovers that he has been framed for the rape and murder of his wife, while his daughter is adopted. Now twenty years later Joe finds himself suddenly released and given 72 hours by a mysterious stranger (Copley) to discover why he imprisoned Joe.
Review: Unsurprisingly when the news was broke about an English language remake of the highly memorable yet alone much beloved Park Chan-wook original it was an announcement greeted with much distain by the fans of the original who rightfully saw it as yet another unneeded cash in. Still the studios rumbled on regardless as for awhile it looked like Steven Spielberg would team up with Will Smith for an adaptation of the original manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, only to step away from the project leaving it open for Spike Lee to take on the project. Certainly a fitting director choice, especially as it takes a certain kind of ego to think that you can better an undisputed classic like the original is rightfully seen as not only by foreign cinema fans, but by people who would normally not even consider watching a foreign film, much less an undubbed one.
So with this in mind I really entered into this film expecting the worse, even more so when I have never exactly been the biggest fan of Lee’s films, which for myself hit their high water mark with the Oscar snubbed “Malcom X” and have since then been pretty much hit and miss. At the same time his frequently opinionated attitude (especially when it comes to racial politics) often leaves little too warm to. So now having finally seen this film it is something of a surprise to report that honestly it’s not that bad. Okay first off it should be noted that this review is based were possibly purely on this film alone, without trying to draw comparisons to the original especially when the two are so incomparable especially when both directors approach the material with two different spins on things.
Interestingly then than rather than trying to adapt the original source Manga, Lee here chooses instead to adapt Chan-Wook’s original film. It has to be noted though that on the credits it is listed as “The Korean film” rather than name checking Chan-Wook. Lee also notably leaves off his usual trademark “A Spike Lee Joint” title which seemingly was Lee’s protest of choice for the studio hacking 35 minutes off his original 140 minute cut. Where these cuts were made I couldn’t say, especially as nothing seems to be noticeably missing
Noticeably more violent than the original, the hammer blows are frequently shown in graphic detail much like nearly all the violence which has none of the savage beauty which Chan-Wook brought not only to the original film but his vengeance trilogy on the whole. Here Joe is a blunt weapon of raw vengeance fuelled with a single minded determination to find out who imprisoned him. It is interesting though to see that Lee rather than simply recreate the memorable brawls of the original instead reworks them in his own vision, so that the Joe’s first chance to test out his fighting skills is not with a group of thugs but instead a bone breaking showdown with a group of lacrosse players. Now as for the memorable one shot corridor fight, here it becomes a multi-level fight as Joe works his way down a series of ramps battling thugs, which Lee ambitiously also shoots as single shot. A sequence which reportedly brought Brolin to tears, while also sequence which suffered under the cuts imposed by the studio, but honestly I couldn’t see where the cut had been made as it remains still a standout sequence if perhaps too clustered in places, as the ramps frequently give the thugs the opportunity to surround and pile in on Joe.
Unsurprisingly some of the more memorable scenes like the squid eating scene are noticeably absent, though the squid is teased as Joe goes on a marathon dumpling sampling session to try and find the restaurant which supplied the dumplings he has been forced to live off for the last 20 years. A reminder once again that there are still somethings you can’t do via the Hollywood studio system that you can do in the Asian film industry. Needless to say when the film does have a memorable moment, it is frequently do to it being a reworked scene from the original, as when attempts to emulate Chan-wooks stylish violence as seen during a particularly sadistic torture session carried out by Joe on Samuel L. Jackson’s hotel manager / jailer the result comes off largely flat and lacking any of the morbid beauty that Chan-wook’s films have frequently brought to such matters.
While the film might frequently fail to capture the spirit of original, it cannot really be blamed on the assembled cast who despite being given what is ultimately watered down material to work with, they still manage to provide some great performances with Brolin easily carrying the film with his testosterone driven antics while still having the acting chops to take us on a journey with the character of Joe, who starts of as an portly alcoholic arsehole, who through his forced captivity is forced to face up to his personal demons while preparing himself for his eventual revenge. True he might not play it with the same feral roughness (he does get a pet mouse though) that we get with the original, but he still perfectly sells the final twist, which sees Brolin pulling the character to the complete opposite end of the scale in reaction to the final twist. It is however one which here like so many aspects is reworked into what I guess Lee saw as being a more acceptable ending for Western audiences. One major and unquestionably shocking aspect of the original’s ending, which I won’t reveal for those of you who havn’t seen it (the fans will know already which one) is kept intact and nicely worked in just when you think that they wouldn’t include it.
As the villain of the piece Copley continues to prove himself as a human chameleon as he continues to never play the same kind of role twice. Here he plays a camper but none the less calculating villain who shares similar motive to Lee Woo-Jin in the original but here Copley is a lot more playfully tormenting of Joe and takes great delight in the trails Joe is forced to go through, were as Lee Woo-Jin played it cool throughout. While Copley is on great form here, he does lack the memorable presence even though he is frequently delightfully evil and comes with a devilish bodyguard (Haeng-Bok) who sadly gets a chance for a great showdown with Joe squandered.
A flawed yet strangely watchable remake and even despite entering the film with a low opinion it still turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable experience. True it might be a more edited version than Lee would have liked (if we are to believe his latest rants) and I would be interested to see what got cut and if it improved or detracted from the film (something which was certainly the case with the “Donnie Darko” director’s cut). Still as remakes go this is certainly one of the better ones out there, even if its unwanted status will mean that many will avoid it out of loyalty for their love of the original. This film however is worth a curious watch, only if to reinforce your love for the original the talent of Park Chan-wook all the more.