Remakes are awesome, right? We all love it when the sole reason a movie gets made is because people don’t want to read subtitles! Alright fine. To be fair, this remake has A LOT going for it. It’s a remake of a fantastic movie that deviated hevily from the book (they could draw more material from that), and it’s directed by someone who we actually know. One of Amercia’s favorite (and polarizing) Auters Spike Lee! Not only that, but the cast is great with Josh Brolin who’s awesome, Elizabeth Olson who is a big up and coming actress, and bad ass movie mainstays like Samuel L. Jackson and Charlto Copley. Does this movie rise above other remakes, or is it a giant wasted effort? Keep reading to find out!!
WARNING: I’ll be talking about both the Korean film and the original manga. SPOILER WARNINGS ARE IN EFFECT!!
The movie begins with Josh Brolin stumbling out a liquor store with a few friends before dragging his drunken ass into the office. We’re informed that this movie takes place in 1993 (New Orleans specifically because it’s cheap to film there) which might explain why the filmmakers decided to shoot this part of the movie with so much film grain. Not three minutes after arriving, his boss reminds him of the big client he’s meeting with that night and that he better not fuck up the deal. The boss knows he’s an alcoholic though, so why is he trusting the boozer to handle it? I guess you could say that our main character (Joe Doucett) is better drunk than anyone else there is sober, which is a fairly common trait for unlikable characters, but it’s a bit early for us to be on his side when all we’ve seen of him so far is him acting like a boorish chump. After that, he gets a call from his ex-wife who’s really pissed at him for not being able to make it to his daughter’s birthday tonight. The thing is; why would she want him anywhere near the birthday party?
Based on this interaction, the two of them are on REALLY shitty terms with each other and I’m guessing a lot of it has to do with his drinking. I’m no expert, but if they’re divorced then I figure she’s given up on him recovering from his addiction any time soon, so why is she trying to get him back into her and her daughter’s life? Maybe she just want to keep piling shit on him knowing he’s in no condition to follow through on any of it and just wants to remind him that he’s a loser. That kind of makes her pretty unlikable if that’s the case, but maybe she still has hope for him (despite screaming at him that he’s a shitty father).
Anyway, we cut Joe in the bathroom preparing for the upcoming meeting, and I’m pretty sure this scene is here just to show that on top of being a drunken jerk, he’s also flabby.
We cut to the meeting where Mr. Doucett is laying on the charm for the client and he ends up convincing him to… I don’t know, make a deal (we’ll leave it at that), and then the client goes to the bathroom leaving our hero with the guy’s wife. Joe then proceeds to very creepily hit on her, and her responses to his advances are just fucking perfect. It gets even better when the husband comes back and scares the shit out of Joe.
He was clearly the best person for the job, am I right? Things don’t get better for him because afterwards he just stumbles around the streets proclaiming how drunk he is and shouting to absolutely no one about his need for alcohol. The best part is when some random woman off screen screams at him to shut the fuck up. This goes on for a few minutes until he finally runs into some lady who kidnaps his ass (off screen naturally) and throws him into a secret prison. He has no idea where he is and why he’s there. There’s almost zero communication with anyone outside the cell (all he can do is try and grab the guy who slides food under the door) and we watch him slowly unravel as he spends more and more time isolated in this room without knowing why.
These scenes in the prison (which is made up to look like a cheap hotel) are actually pretty great. There are nice little details inside the room (I especially like the fake window that changes the view so that he knows when day and night are) and Josh Brolin is very good in the part. A few days into his imprisonment, he jerks off and the people holding him there immediately knock him out with gas, collect the “evidence”, proceed to kill his wife, and then plant the evidence against Joe. He finds out about this because one of the few things they left him with is a television and he sees the report on the news. Even if Joe finds a way out, he’ll escape as a wanted man and will probably end up spending the rest of his life in another prison.
I will say that as good this section of the movie is, it does go on a bit too long with little subplots stretching out what should be a pretty small part of the movie. He starts hallucinating at one point but then stops doing that and doesn’t for the rest of his stay, and there’s a bit with some mice he befriends before the bad guys take them and pull a “Fatal Attraction” on Joe.
This whole sequence takes way too long and doesn’t really tell us anything that we couldn’t infer already. One aspect that is quite different from the Korean version (and makes me question how this film will deviate from it) is that he sees his daughter twice on television. Once when she’s still young (probably late 90’s) and again right before he gets released (2013). The first time he sees her, he decides to make some changes which include working out and giving up the booze (he gets a bottle of vodka with his meals). He also begins trying to escape, which takes about ten years to set up his plan, but the day he can finally escape JUST SO HAPPENS to be the day they knock him out for the last time and toss his ass into a suitcase. He also wakes up with a pair of sunglasses, a few hundred bucks in cash, the letters to his daughter he wrote while he was inside the room, and an iPhone that only seems to show a picture of his daughter with an ominous count down. He doesn’t seem to think much of this, and soon after he sees a woman carrying the same umbrella that the woman who kidnapped him had (no idea if it’s the same lady) and proceeds to chase her.
Along the way he beats up four dudes who see him chasing after a woman because of course he does. His first interaction with a human being in two decades is to beat the shit out of them. Remember how completely dazed the hero was in the Korean film? Remember how he kept grabbing at the guy on the roof and was horrified by the woman in the elevator? What that told us is that this is a completely broken man who has to start over from square one. He no longer knows how to deal with people, and the film did a great job of showing it. Sure he did eventually kick some ass, but we also see him flounder around and fail at very basic social interactions. This movie? The decided that it turned him into The Punisher (or perhaps more apt, Jonah Hex).
Anyway, the mystery lady gets away but might have been leading him to this one woman who, despite Joe almost beating up some guy who picked up the mysterious woman’s umbrella, wants to help him out (giving him a card with her number). He ignores her for now and decided that the next best thing is to visit a friend of his who owns a bar that we saw at the beginning of the movie.
Yeah, I’m gonna bring this up now. The original manga? Ten years. The Korean film? Fifteen years. This one? They decided to go with a full twenty years of imprisonment, and it was frankly a pretty bad decision. He really doesn’t look any different now than he did at the beginning, and I suspect that the whole “grainy film for the 90s scenes” was a way to try and cover up the fact that no one tried to make Mr. Brolin look any younger in those scenes, or any older in these ones. Anyway, his friend believes him and wants to help him out in some way when Joe gets a call from the man who locked him in the room, giving him cryptic hints that something bad is going to happen to his daughter. At this point Joe and his friend (Chucky) begin Googling names that Joe wrote down while he was in the prison. If you hadn’t seen the original, you might not have figured out that one of the things he was writing was a list of all the people who he’s screwed over and would want to take revenge on him. The original film had the benefit of a narration by the hero who told us what he was writing down, but this version chooses to forgo that and the scene ends up being confusing if you hadn’t seen the original. I HAVE seen the original and I didn’t know what he was doing until this point in the movie (had to re-watch the Korean film to make sure it was in there). After hours of looking up addresses, he ends up passing out… for some reason. Anyway, his friend finds him and APPARENTLY Joe knew he was going to lose consciousness because he’s holding the fucking card that the woman gave her and Chucky decides the best thing to do is call this random person and see if they will help Joe. This ends up being a good decision (somehow) and she gives him IV fluids (I think) because he’s apparently malnourished and dehydrated. Why? He was kept fed for twenty years and wound up in the care of a friend within one day of his release. How is he in such a bad state?
Chucky has to open up the bar (there are people knocking at the door this early in the morning) and the lady stays with Joe and proceeds to read his letters. Joe wakes up and doesn’t take kindly to this invasion of privacy, but ends up letting her off the hook. After that, he proceeds to go down the list of people he’s been able to locate (with the woman in tow) and checks to see if any of them could be the one responsible. This doesn’t go anywhere, but Joe gets the idea to check Chinese restaurants and see if he can identify which was supplying the food he ate (because if there’s one type of food I associate with New Orleans, it’s Chinese Takeout). He knows part of the name of the place because of a REALLY quick scene during his letter writing montage in the prison where a piece of paper gets left in his meal with the word dragon in it. The scene went by SO fast that the only people who would have realized its significance are those who have seen the original and already know why it’s important. It’s a minor detail that doesn’t take away too much, but it is something I noticed. Anyway, he finally finds the place (the girl bailed on him partway through his search) and he follows someone who JUST SO HAPPENS to be picking up food for the place he was being imprisoned. I actually like this scene because Joe is chasing the car on a flashy bike he stole and watching Josh Brolin ride this thing is hilarious.
And so we reach the scene which everyone who is even vaguely aware of this film knows about. He storms the building, and beats one of the guards to death with a hammer (because no one has guns in Louisiana). This scene is also amazing because Samuel L. Jackson, looking like Zack from Dead or Alive, turns out to be the guy running this little enterprise.
Joe naturally knocks him the fuck out and we get a scene that is actually more intense than in the Korean film. In that scene, our hero was pulling the guys teeth out, while in this one, Joe slowly cuts out chunks of skin around Nick Fury’s neck and then proceeds to salt the wound until the guy from Snakes on a Plane gives him what he wants to know. There’s not a whole lot he finds out, other than a recording of the guy who paid to have him imprisoned. Reinforcements arrive and we get the recreation of the famous hammer scene, but it was REALLY clumsily put into the movie. I swear, we cut from Joe running for his life, to him casually walking into frame of the next scene, and at that time the music starts playing. There’s ZERO flow between the previous scene and the beginning of the hammer scene. Aside from that though, it’s actually pretty good, with Josh Brolin showing off his physical prowess. The hits are hard and the cinematography is well done. There are two things that hurt this scene though. The first is that it doesn’t make sense for NO ONE to have a gun. It ends up making this scene feel like it’s there for the sake of copying the original (a lot of this movie is like that actually) instead of trying to put an American (or even a Spike Lee) spin on it. The other thing is that if you look away from the immediate action to the people at the edges at the screen (waiting for their turn to attack Brolin) you’ll see them start swinging bats and lead pipes wildly for no reason. They don’t even come close to him and it just feels like either awkward choreography, or the stunt men were told to not even get CLOSE to hitting Brolin if you weren’t supposed to. Other than that it’s well put together, it’s very stylish, and it’s VERY funny. I swear this one shot kept me laughing for five minutes straight.
Joe barely makes it out of the building when a couple of goons pick his ass up and drops him off at Chucky’s bar. Naturally they call the woman again (they still haven’t given her a name) to help patch him up. She calls in support from one of her other doctor friends (I think she works at a free clinic, but that’s just a guess) who really wants to get the police involved considering he just fixed a guy with a stab wound in his back, but he doesn’t because Marie (this guy is the first to say her name) doesn’t want him to. We also learn that she’s an ex-junkie which I guess is the movie’s excuse as to why she wants to hang around Joe (they’re both damaged or some other bull shit). Later that night during last call at the bar, Joe gets visited by the man who’s responsible for what happened to him. Aside from the phone call earlier (we just saw a silhouette) this is our first time seeing the dude played by Sharlto Copley who Joe tries to kill immediately but gets his ass handed to him by Mr. Copley’s Kung-Fu emo chick.
The Stranger (that’s what IMDB calls him at least) gives our friend Joe here a proposition. If Joe wins this little game, Copley will give Joe the video of him raping and murdering his wife (I don’t think Joe wants that) a signed confession to the crimes, twenty MILLION dollars… in diamonds (what?), and finally, he will kill himself in front of Joe. If Joe fails the game though, then his daughter gets killed. What is the game? Answer two questions. Who am I, and why did I lock you up. Not only that, but he has to answer these questions before the timer goes off on his phone (about 48 hours to go). Just to show Joe he isn’t fucking around, he shows a live feed of Marie who is about to get raped by someone, and let’s Joe go to save her. Joe somehow knows where she lives (he also found a car to drive) and rushes inside. The goons are waiting and it turns out that Sam Jackson is still alive and wants some payback.
Before Jules can reenact the torture scene from Reservoir Dogs (MIXED TARINTENO REFERENCES!), he gets a call from The Stranger who tells him to stand down, which he does. After the goons leave, Marie and Joe try to figure out what to do. Marie figures out that the ringtone that plays whenever The Stranger calls Joe is from Joe’s old prep school. They find out it’s been closed for a while now, so they decide to meet with the former headmaster. While Marie has her distracted, trying to get information about anyone who could be after Joe, he sneaks around back and is looking through old year books for The Stranger. He eventually finds him and learns that his name is Adrian Pryce. They plan to visit the academy later that night (under cover of darkness) and decide to get a motel room in the meantime. Chucky is looking into the guy while Marie finally goes ahead and fucks Joe. Yeah. It’s that abrupt. It’s a pretty decent sex scene that has a good amount of nudity and isn’t overly edited to show as little as possible. Elizabeth Olson is looks REALLY great in this, and the fact that Josh Brolin looks WAY too old for her is kind of the point of the whole thing. My only problem with it is the same problem I had with this character in every version of Old Boy. They don’t have a lot to do in the story besides provide moral support for the hero, take damage for the sake of the hero, and eventually fuck them despite knowing almost nothing about them. This version doesn’t have the excuse of ‘IT WAS ALL HYPNOTYSIM” that the Korean film has, but I’m just grateful that that STUPID plot point has been excised from this interpretation. For some reason Adrian has cameras in their motel room (because of course he does) and seems to be getting pissed about the fucking (that, or he’s getting a boner). I don’t know. The bad guy in this version is much different from the versions we saw in the manga and Korean film. Sure he was rich, clean, and fastidious in those versions too, but this has an extra layer of rich weirdo to it. All I’m saying is that he wouldn’t seem out of place if he wore pantaloons and a powdered wig. What the fuck was I talking about? Oh right. So after the coitus, Adrian finally decides to take out Chucky for some reason.
In the Korean film, it was an impulsive act, but Adrian was nowhere NEAR Chucky’s bar, and had to drive his ass over there. That’s not what I would call impulsive is all I’m saying.
Later that night, the two heroes enter the school and for some reason ALL the records are still just lying around for anyone to look at despite the school having been shut down for years. They find out that Adrian had a sister, and then Joe finally figures out who the fuck would want revenge on him. Considering how fucking massive he fucked up here, I’m surprised he didn’t get this right off the bat. Sure he didn’t know ALL the details of what happened after his involvement, but I still think it warrants an entry on his enemies list from earlier.
What happened was that Joe (who was an alcoholic dick bag in Prep School as well) used to bully Adrian’s sister Amanda. One night, he saw her fucking someone in the school’s greenhouse and then made her life hell by telling the entire school. This causes the family to flee to another country and Joe hadn’t heard from the since. What Joe didn’t know then but is aware of now is that the man she was fucking was her father (gasp!) and that soon after they moved to Luxemburg, the father shotgunned the entire family to death. He somehow missed with Adrian, and just fucked up one side of his torso.
Now compare that to the Korean film. The hero told ONE dude, and then moved away the next day. This would explain why he didn’t remember the incident. The brother ended up killing her sister (it was practically assisted suicide) which gave A LOT of pathos to his character. Joe ends up being much more unlikable (and kind of deserves at least some retribution) while Adrian comes off as a wannabe bad guy. Some chump who’s trying to be the Joker and failing at it.
Having his answer (and finding Chucky’s tongue on the hood of the car, which he barely even reacts to), he decides to finally confront Adrian and let him know that the game is over. Marie is somewhat unnerved by the severed tongue (more so than when she was almost raped it seems) and doesn’t want Joe to go, but he does anyway and tells her to stay in the motel room. Once he arrives, the Kung-Fu Emo Chick attacks him, and he slices her throat open. Wait what?
Are you fucking serious!? What was the point of that!? Did Copley order her to do it? He barely even seems to register that it happened, continuing on with their conversation while a dead woman stains his carpet. Anyway, Joe gives him the answers, and Copley accepts it. He elaborates on his side of the story and we learn that his father would fuck him as well. Adrian blames Joe’s actions for breaking his father’s mind which led to him massacring the entire family. We see it happen and it’s a pretty unnerving scene where each member sees their father, begins to undress, and then gets a gut full of lead. It’s odd that no one else in the house heard the previous gunshots, but I can overlook that.
Now that Joe’s won the game, Adrian takes him to see his daughter. Adrian takes him to an underground studio where the show that Joe watched that had his daughter in it was filmed. It turns out that the two times he saw her on TV were actually made up by Copley, and that someone else is actually his daughter. You want to guess who? Come on, you saw the Korean one right? You can figure it out! Here. Let me show you the faces of Brolin’s anguish and see if you can guess.
If you haven’t guessed yet (seriously, there’s ONE female character in this cast) it’s Marie. In case you don’t recall, she fucked him a few hours ago. Ouch. Considering how completely out of nowhere the Emo lady got killed, I was guessing that the twist this time would be that SHE was his daughter, and he had just killed her! Nope. She’s no one important and that scene was completely pointless. Adrian keeps up his end of the deal and shoots himself in the head. Joe, with a shit ton of diamonds (seriously, why?) decides the only thing he can do at this point is to give most of them to Marie, and go back to the prison where he spent the last 20 years.
The first problem I have with this is why the fuck didn’t Sammy J kill him the first chance he got? He paid them in advanced to keep him locked up forever, and they can knock him out at any time with the gas. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just take him out now? It would also be retribution for taking chunks out of the dude’s neck! My second issue… look. This is CLEARLY a fucked up situation, but there are ways to deal with this. It’s not the dude’s fault that he had sex with his daughter, and considering the MYRIAD of things that COULD have happened to her while he was away, this isn’t all that bad of an outcome. She’s not dead, she wasn’t raped, and she’s at least somewhat well adjusted. Keep this shit a secret and avoid her (without having to spend the rest of your life in a small room) or better yet, come clean and try to work through it together. He had a lousy fate in the Korean film as well, but I can buy that one a bit more because they took the time to show how already damaged he was. It probably wouldn’t have taken a lot to push him over the edge compared to Badass Brolin in this one. Either way, I much prefer the way the book did it (ugh… that sounds so snobby) which includes ZERO INCEST! Seriously! THERE’S A VERSION OF THIS STORY WHERE NO ONE FUCKS A FAMILY MEMBER!! It also gave us some hope for the guy considering that he wasn’t really a loser before the imprisonment and his ‘crime’ as it were wasn’t as bad as it is in the movie. It’s a generally more positive story than either of the film versions which is probably why I like it the most.
So what are my thoughts about this movie? Honestly? It’s still pretty good. I haven’t watched a lot of Spike Lee, but there’s definitely a sense of style his that bubbles to the surface whenever it’s not blatantly trying to rip off the Korean film. Josh Brolin is a fantastic actor and while Joe might be a bit mischaracterized for my tastes, he pulls off the role magnificently. Sharlto Copley does fine with the role, but it doesn’t quite work for me the way it did in the Korean film. There’s not a whole lot of menace to him, and he’s a bit too scummy for me to respect as a villain. We barely spend any time with him, so his pathos seems to be a result of other influences (his dad) rather than the tragedy he experienced due to his own actions. Elizabeth Olsen soldiers through this as well as any actress could have (if not better) but she really doesn’t have much to do other than play the White Mage and get sexed up by Joe. It’s not often that we get movies this dark and strange, so I can appreciate it on that level. However, it’s still a watered down version of a much superior film, and doesn’t do enough different from that one to give it its own identity. Say what you will about Spike Lee, he tends to leave a fucking mark on his movies, but here it just feels too close to what someone ELSE did, instead of what Spike SHOULD have done. You ever hear the expression “damning with faint praise?” Well consider my review of this movie “praising with faint damnation.” Despite its flaws, and despite how little it does to differentiate itself from previous incarnations (clearly the weakest of the three versions of this story), it’s still a solid little thriller that goes where a lot of mainstream Hollywood films wouldn’t dare to. I definitely recommend this, but only after you’ve experienced the other versions of this story. Let those two show you how great this material is, and then watch this version to see what Spike Lee did differently.