It shouldn’t detract from the experience of watching ”Oldboy”, or distract you from Spike Lee’s creative approach, but the question that keeps occurring to you throughout the film is where the director gets his money from nowadays.
Partly it’s because of his recent high profile Kickstarter project, but partly it’s because of the technology brands embedded into the script. In this case it seems Google, Apple and the Shazam music-identifying app paid for a good deal of the $30m budget.
Product placement is a Faustian bargain any time and if it’s the only way Lee could bankroll this English-language remake it’s unfair to cast judgment as the film wouldn’t exist otherwise. But it’s also very hard not to imagine the marketing executive from Cupertino or Mountain View standing next to the producer somewhere on set rubbing their hands with glee.
The other reason it feels so out of place is because Lee has always felt like the kind of director who could (and did) get small, creatively vibrant films made that stuck it to The Man, and to have The Man as a financial partner feels a bit wrong in his ouvre.
Of course, the questions above raise the point of whether the movie should exist at all. Star Josh Brolin said he was a massive star of the original and that director Chan-wook Park gave his blessing, and if any director could have the audacity to meet or even top the garish 2003 fable about revenge, Lee would be on the list.
But the scene where Joe Ducett (Brolin) looks briefly at the octopus in a restaurant tank and then looks away is similar to the approach of the whole film. Lee glances at what made the original such a stand out, and then backs off or goes his own way (depending on how much of a purist you are).
Of the two iconic scenes, it’s the single-take fight with a corridor full of goons that Lee, Brolin and the script takes on, and how much you like it (along with the whole film) will depend on your view of it being a viable creative effort or just another soulless cash in by the Hollywood machine.
Already on a destructive slide in his life in the early 1990s, advertising executive Joe Ducett is taken prisoner and locked in a dingy hotel room where he’s given food and some TV and left for 20 years.
On the verge of escaping by scraping away tiles in the bathroom, he’s suddenly released, and the evocative image you’ve seen on the poster – of a black-suited Brolin emerging from a large chest in the middle of a grassy field – is his entry back into the world.
Ducett goes on a Tarantino-esque bloody rampage of revenge, burying hammers in heads and slitting throats with stoic abandon to get to the bottom of who locked him up and why. He reluctantly accepts the help of a young former drug addict-turned mobile medic (Olsen), who – if you’ve seen the original or know the premise – has more to do with Joe than either of them know.
Sharlto Copley is unrecognisable (after playing the gruff, murderous Kruger in Elysium) as the suave villain Ducett must hack, slash and bash his way to, and if you don’t know anything about the story or original, it has a good measure of emotional power when everything is revealed.
In a perfect world for Lee’s film, the original wouldn’t exist – this film suffers the ‘American remake’ stigma straight out of the gate regardless of quality – and we’d give great filmmakers $30m to maintain creative expression in our culture instead of advertise computers and apps.