(On DVD, October 2016) Denzel Washington and Spike Lee are a good match, and He Got Game is a great use of their combined talents. Washington is spectacular as the convict asked to convince his estranged basketball-prodigy son to sign up for a particular college. His usual mixture of swagger, danger, charm and grumpiness work well here, and I’m hardly the first critic to note the comforting blend of traditional traits that make up his persona’s masculinity. But even his character’s power as a man quickly reaches its limits when his estranged son rebuffs him, and how his example has to rival with the trappings of fame, sex and money. He may not even be the main character in the story, given how much of the film slowly slides over to his son’s character and the choice he has to make as the film progresses. Lee’s impressionistic directing flourishes work well in this context, and add a depth of complexity to the characters’ inner struggles. Good supporting performances by Ray Allen (an athlete playing the son), Rosario Dawson and Milla Jovovich also help, as does a good sense of street-level New York. It wraps up in a good conclusion, and leaves viewers satisfied—although finding out what happened to those character five, ten years later would be interesting.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) I’m not going to be coy about my biases going into this movie: The original South-Korean Oldboy did not need to be remade for an American audience. Seeing Spike Lee tackle the project is a bit of a waste, especially when the result seems to stick as closely to the original. I suppose that the film would be worth a look for those who haven’t seen the original: It has an intriguing mystery at its core, an unconventional revenge story, enough icky plot points to make it memorable and a bit of style as bonus. (It’s best not to think too long about the finer points of the plot, but so it goes.) Josh Brolin is a solid protagonist, Samuel L. Jackson has a flashy short role and Sharlito Copley turns in another off-kilter performance as the villain. Still, this American Oldboy runs long, never quite connects to the protagonist, somehow doesn’t earn its wilder plot points and doesn’t quite know how to control its tone. This being said, nearly everyone who should have seen the original has seen the original, and comparisons are where much of this remake’s interest is about. It does seem to beg comparison, so closely does it adhere to the original –there’s even a bit of a fake-out where it seems as if the most effective twist of the original has been neutralized. And while much of the remake is less impressive than the original, its coda is more credible than the hypnotism mumbo-jumbo of the Korean version. In the end, though, this Oldboy falls in-between respectable cinema and effective exploitation, satisfying no one –and annoying those who thought the (even flawed) original should have been left alone.