Josh Brolin

Oldboy (2013)

Analysing a remake without explicit comparison with an original is hard enough work. In the case of Oldboy (2013) it all gets little more complicated. Whilst we could view it as a new adaptation of Garon Tsuchiya & Nobuaki Minegishi’s original source manga, Spike Lee’s latest joint seems to go out if its way to invite comparisons with Park Chan-wook’s 2003 critical darling. Except it’s not a Spike Lee “joint.” Lee got frustrated with cuts he was apparently forced to make from his original 140 minute feature that he downgraded Oldboy from “joint” to “film.” So here we have a new film, based on the Grand Prix winning favourite of Quentin Tarantino and almost overwhelmingly revered by film fanatics all over, which even its own director isn’t happy with. Signs do not bode well.

For the uninitiated, Oldboy tells the story of city boy Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a belligerent drunk who is imprisoned by an unknown entity for 20 years, framed for the murder of his ex-wife and eventually released back into the world obsessed with the idea of revenge. Where ever the supposedly imposed cuts were placed on Oldboy’s content, it was most certainly not on the film’s opening, a dreadfully slow, indulgent and cheap depiction of Joe’s alcoholism. With the subtlety of a battering ram, Brolin sways, stumbles and pukes his way through the city streets before hammily screaming “does anyone have any more alcohol?!” at apartment blocks. His imprisonment arrives after he chases an Asian lady with an umbrella through Chinatown, a motif that is consistently repeated to lead Joe into dangerous situations. It’s probable the filmmakers were trying to tip their hats to the original Korean film, but the overall association of badness with this corner of the city reeks of lazy and unsavoury Orientalism.

But Oldboy’s laziness extends far beyond its treatment of illness and culture. The infamous hammer hallway fight scene from Park Chan-wook’s original is practically copy and pasted, albeit with sickeningly cheesy guitar-led fight music that makes the whole scenario seem like Josh Brolin is levelling up on an awful arcade game. Then there’s the scene where Joe idly stares at a CGI octopus in an Asian restaurant. Brief and unnecessary, it’s very likely all involved thought this wonderfully subversive and clever, but it’s just an aching reminder of the superior version you wish you were watching.

There’s a chance that there is some enjoyment to be had in Oldboy if one has never witnessed how perfectly the story can be presented, as it was ten years ago. But for those familiar with the original there is precisely nothing new introduced, the twist climax limping in like a predictably unwanted guest, an over-acted one at that. Oldboy is completely undone by its lack of personal touch from its auteur director, its poor lead performance, and subtle-as-a-brick storytelling. Like its protagonist’s imprisonment, expect tedium and aggravation.

Gangster Squad (2013)

Los Angeles, 1949. Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) returns from service in WWII to find his beloved City of Angels drowning under a tidal wave of sin, orchestrated by East Coast mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Wanting a better future for himself and his pregnant wife (Mireille Enos), O’Mara jumps at the chance to eradicate Cohen and his influence when Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) instructs him to form a vigilante-style task force. They must strike in the shadows, targeting each layer of Cohen’s criminal empire without leaving any trace of police involvement. Cue a series of clandestine missions and high-risk strategies that call into question whether the squad really can succeed fighting fire with fire.

Director Ruben Fleisher’s first foray into the gangster genre certainly looks the part. The men of 1940s LA walk the streets with their eyes hidden in the shadow of fedoras whilst the women sashay in curled hair and vampish red lipstick. This is a place where naïve young girls hoping to be movie stars prove easy prey for evil-minded, tommy-gun wielding crooks, and every exhalation is accompanied by a snappy line and a cloud of cigarette smoke.

Brolin’s is the sort of face that fits perfectly into this retro milieu, all chiselled frown lines and heavy brow, and the film really does belong to him. Amplifying the desperate tenacity he demonstrated on the run in the Coens’ No Country For Old Men, Brolin’s O’Mara strikes as the only character with anything really to lose, bar Giovanni Ribisi’s quietly intelligent Conway Keeler, who supplies the squad with “the brains to balance the brawn.” On the other side of the law is Sean Penn’s intense portrayal of Cohen, one which manoeuvres back and forth between reserved menace and chest-thumping rage so quickly it’s no wonder those around him don’t get whiplash. With an opening scene demonstrating just how violently vengeful Cohen can get using only two cars and some rope, Penn’s is a performance that truly convinces despite being weighed down by some dodgy prosthetics.

Such a shame then that the other characters are given so little room to shine. Ryan Gosling’s Sergeant Jerry Wooters proves a certified scene-stealer, though this seems more down to the actor’s decision to play the clichéd ladykiller as charmingly flamboyant more than anything. Completing the gangster squad itself are Gosling’s former Half Nelson co-star Anthony Mackie as streetwise Coleman Harris, Robert Patrick as straight-shot Max Kennard, and Michael Peña as keen-to-prove-himself Navidad Ramirez. Emma Stone is unfortunately given little to do but look pretty as Grace Faraday, Cohen’s attractive arm piece. Bored of her duties as gangster moll, she starts an affair with Wooters, which should be a tense subplot but is instead drowned out by the sound of all the explosive set pieces crashing around it.

It is these action scenes which provide the film with its best visuals and some of its most enjoyable moments, with Fleisher taking a leaf out of Zack Snyder’s big book of action directing, presenting his audience with slow-mo comic book style shootouts, the camera weaving between a rain of bullets to show the violent confrontations from all angles. A particularly tense moment in the film’s first act involving Wooters being sucked into a street siege, as well as an effortlessly cool raid the squad pulls in formal dinner wear whilst accompanied by contrapuntal cha-cha soundtrack are demonstrative of Fleisher’s capabilities despite his reputation for comedic fare. However, as you’d expect from the director of Zombieland, Gangster Squad is not without its brief light-hearted moments, particularly in the early stages of the squad’s formation, wherein bickering and banter show the team’s schoolboy side before the dirty work must be done.

Sure there are better gangster films, and yes, the first of the most eagerly anticipated Hollywood offerings of 2013 is somewhat disappointing. But somehow Gangster Squad keeps fighting beyond its underused A-list cast and clunky structure to secure your support for the good guys all the way to the final towering showdown. Though it may not leave that lasting an impression, it’s a slickly presented 113 minutes of unadulterated and superficial pulpy goodness. For all its flaws, Gangster Squad is still a solid piece of non-committal, popcorn entertainment.

True Grit (2010)

Sitting back in the dark and viewing a Coen Brother’s film brings two contrasting thoughts to mind. One makes you give thanks for the two of them, astounding us with original takes on classic genres for over twenty years and the other states categorically that what we are about to watch will definately not be as good as Fargo.

The Coens are no longer an enigma. their mystery has been deshrouded, we are used to fat men screaming, running jokes, Kubrick references (the best is in O Brother by the way), the mis-pronounciations, the great names and Steve Buscemi ending up dead in a smaller and smaller way. They no longer work outside the system, they are financially viable and could probably get any film made if it cost less than $50,000,000 because there are enough of us out here to pay to see ANY film they cared to throw our way. This is an unfair burden but one they have created for themselves (it’s probably one they couldn’t care less about), the price of being one of the best is alway having to be one of the best.

Which brings us to True Grit, made two years after their first (modern) Western (arguably, Blood Simple has many Western themes but we’ll throw that in Noir and move on), No Country for Old Men. No Country was a superlative piece, expertly adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel and showing they knew the genre inside out. True Grit is a more conventional, classically set picture. A remake of a creaky old John Wayne vehicle that is fondly remembered until watched again.

True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, a precocious and intelligent young girl who pragmatically sets out to avenge her father’s murder by hiring a Marshall to hunt down his Killer. One of the best aspects of the Coen’s work is there almost impeccable casting. Each part tends to be written for very specific actors and they more than often say yes. So, Jeff Daniels is perfect as Rooster Cogburn, all drunken ravings, murderous practicality and gravel voiced conviction and Hailee Steinfeld excells as Matty, amazing us with her sharp tongue, wiseness beyond her years and still juvenile vulnerability. The wild card here is Matt Damon, a newcomer to the Coen’s world and often derided as an serious actor (Bagger Vance, All the Pretty Horses, etc). It’s been fun watching little Matty Damon grow up in front of us, from a trouble math’s genius to an amnesiac secret agent and all the stops inbetween (EBFS has a soft spot for The Informant). He now has the power to be involved with the films he wants to be, and thank god the Coen’s wanted him. Here he is Laboeuf, a texas ranger who was already hunting down the killer for a previous crime. He’s arrogant, vain and not as socially comfortable as he would like. Damon plays him as written (another rule on a Coen’s set) and plays him well.

True Grit’s story is not unusual but it’s charm is. The warmth the characters begin to feel for each other is never stated, it simply happens between the lines and right infront of our faces. It’s a real joy watching them at work. Placing this film outside it’s director’s top five says more about the quality and quantity of the Coen Brothers output than it does about this flm. True Grit is confident, accomplished, measured film making, filled with excellent performances, graced with cinematography that is both haunting and poetic and plays out a story that is dramatically fulfilling and totally suitatble for it’s genre. Still not top five material though.

It falls between Miller’s Crossing and Burn After Reading. You can do the rest.