Whether it was Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, or any other big name directing the US remake of Oldboy, fans of the original (which was based on the source manga) were going to come out of the woodwork to voice their opinions on someone attempting to recreate utter perfection. Park Chan-Wook’s original is critically considered to be one of the best revenge thrillers of all time, one of the best Korean movies of all time, and one of the most gripping portrayals of gut-wrenching devastation ever depicted on camera. Remaking Oldboy was no doubt going to be a challenge, but Spike Lee does so with confidence and his own distinct style – but doesn’t succeed in differentiating his version enough to be a standalone “re-imagining” instead of just a typical remake.
Oldboy is a story about a man named Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) – a greedy, cold, despicable drunk who is about to get a traumatizing wake-up call. After a long night of binge drinking and destroying people’s lives, Joe is captured by an unknown assailant and wakes up the next morning in what appears to be a hotel room. Unlike a normal hotel though, there’s no exit from this room, and Joe quickly realizes he’s being held captive. To make matters worse, he learns his wife has been murdered and he’s the prime suspect. With no contact to the outside world and no idea who would do such a thing, days, months, and years pass by as Joe attempts to prepare himself mentally and physically for his hopeful release – which happens 20 years later. With a new lease on life, Joe sets out to find the man who wronged him, find his daughter, and clear his name – armed with only a cell phone and some cash.
While I typically don’t believe in comparing “remakes” to original productions, Spike Lee’s Oldboy varies so little from Park Chan-Wook’s that it’s extremely hard for me to recommend this American-language version over the original. Everything about the Korean masterpiece trumps what Lee and Josh Brolin put together, from the much grittier and absolutely astonishing emotional depth to the crazier and more stylistic violence. Lee’s remake feels more like a homage than a “re-imagining” if anything, which actually helps at times, but the director’s interpretation also has a lighter, less sinister tone – which does nothing but detract from such a jarring, disturbing story.
Take Oldboy‘s fabled one-shot hallway scene as the perfect example. Watching Choi Min-sik pummel his way through a whole slew of henchmen with his trusty hammer is a thing of beauty, as the expertly choreographed scene is like a cinematographer’s wet dream. The fight wages on with intensity, feverish excitement, and Min-sik doesn’t miss a single mark – the scene is as close to perfect as a filmmaker can create. That’s the original though.
Spike Lee of course does his own take on the “hallway scene,” bringing different levels into play. The whole scene unfolds in a very incompetent fashion though, like a cheesy 80s flick. Josh Brolin faces smaller groups of henchmen, ones who are continually flailing and missing without any indication of actually wanting to harm Josh’s character Joe, removing any sense of excitement from the scene. It’s a fun little fist-throwing romp, but it chooses a path of silly, comical routines over an actual, all-out brawl. This is how much of Spike Lee’s Oldboy feels, it’s missing the graphic, heart-stopping gutsiness of Park Chan-Wook’s original.
The cast of Oldboy provide plenty of intrigue, as Josh Brolin put his body through the ringer to make the complete transformation from an out-of-shape Joe Doucett to his freed fighting-form, but names like Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley had me most excited. Jackson of course delivers yet another colorful, attention-grabbing perfromance sporting vibrant apparel and a stylish blonde mohawk, but it’s Copley who steals the show. I’m not sure if you know this, but Sharlto Copley is a character genius, and his turn in Oldboy is a testament to how the actor immerses himself in his roles. Brolin is a strong leading man (but no Choi Min-sik), Elizabeth Olsen gives decent support, Samuel L. Jackson delivers yet again, but it’s Copley who impresses the most, with yet another memorable, captivating performance – not to my surprise.
Spike Lee’s Oldboy can’t hold a candle to Park Chan-Wook’s original masterpiece, but the sad fact is that many people probably had no idea the Korean original even existed until Steven Spielberg announced his wishes to adapt the property. Lee’s remake may give mainstream audiences the opportunity to witness the jaw-dropping story of Oldboy, but to true cinema lovers, my recommendation is to stomach the subtitles and watch the much superior original incarnation. Lee tells the same exact story that Park Chan-Wook does, but does so without the non-stop intensity, dynamite action, and brutally unforgiving storytelling. It’s a good thing his cast came full of passion, because without their want to give Oldboy justice, what a mess this watered-down thriller could have been.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, but I'll take it lukewarm as long as I get to watch Sharlto Copley's brilliance in action.