There are many films that have no reason to exist besides turning an ill-conceived buck.
Transformers 4, for instance – now with 100% more Mark Wahlberg – or the upcoming Terminator reboot – as if the series’ timeline wasn’t convoluted enough already.
Spike Lee’s Oldboy might cynically be considered just such a film. Having made only two films since 2006’s Inside Man, and both of them flops, Lee is clearly in need of a hit. As such, a remake of a cult Korean thriller made just the decade before would seem to be a counter-intuitive choice, not only in that Park Chan-wook’s original was premised on a series of unrepeatable twists (imagine a remake of The Sixth Sense).
The question then becomes whether Lee and co. have managed to recapture what made 2003’s Oldboy so memorable without simply rehashing the plot. The answer to that is “not entirely”.
The new Oldboy, as expected, more or less simply Americanizes the story of Oh Dae-su; here called Joe Doucett and played by No Country‘s Josh Brolin. One of the potential candidates for Batman V. Superman‘s older, more grizzled Dark Knight – before Ben Affleck took the role – he’s an interesting choice to embody the force of vengeance Doucett later becomes.
Which is not to say he doesn’t also carry off the drunken, sleazy, self-pitying asshole Doucett begins the film as. Divorced from his wife, a chronically absent father, slurping vodka from a McDonalds cup and hitting on a would-be client’s wife, Brolin’s Doucett is a fairly loathsome human being, but one at least who seems to have some idea of the mess his life’s become.
As such, when he wakes up after a chronic bender after blowing a big meeting to find himself imprisoned in a mock motel room, there’s a long list of people who might have put him there. It’s a point he’ll have plenty of time to dwell on during the twenty years he’ll spend in that room (five years longer than Choi Min-Sik’s Dae-su; presumably with time added for bad behavior).
While Doucett is on the inside, the world changes, as viewed on his motel room TV, his only connection with the outside world. The Twin Towers fall. Barack Obama is elected President. Before all of this, though, Doucett is forced to witness a news report that details the brutal rape and murder of his ex-wife for which hair and DNA planted at the scene mark him as the perpetrator; a true shiver-down-your-spine event as a horrified Doucett is forced to deal with the fallout from some unknown transgression he’s committed.
Unlike the original, Lee’s Oldboy shows the process by which Doucett was framed – the removing of a hair sample while he’s unconscious, the taking of a DNA swab. This more logical, meticulous portrayal to the nature of the conspiracy against its protagonist sounds laudable, but shows, in fact, an approach to the material that doesn’t quite hold up.
After two decades of captivity, of suicide attempts and training montages, a newly empowered Doucett has determined to break out and become the father he never was. A pillowcase full of undelivered letters to his daughter in tow, he’s on the verge of making his escape when suddenly and seemingly apropos of nothing, he awakens in a case in the middle of a field; apparently a free man once more.
However, Doucett’s trial is far from over: his mysterious captor gets in contact and offers a challenge/ultimatum: he has 72 hours to figure out why he was imprisoned and by whom or his long-estranged daughter, Mia dies.
If this review so far has been largely narrative-based that’s because Oldboy, as a film, has little substantive to comment on. Unlike Chan-wook’s, there’s little to savor in terms of symbolism or shocking imagery. For anyone who’s seen the original, the image of a claw hammer being buried in a man’s skull will yield few gasps. For the uninitiated, Doucett’s brief encounter with an octopus will mean next to nothing. Damned if you do…
Spike Lee’s take on Oldboy is, that being said, all about damnation. The motel room in which Doucett is imprisoned – with its eerie photo of a grinning bellhop and interminable Chinese food – seems designed to be unsettling, nightmarish. Similarly, Doucett’s treatment there is far more sadistic than that of his Korean counterpart: he makes friends with a mice only to have it and its young cooked and served to him on a platter.
While the original was content to show you a yellow umbrella with a series of red strikes on it and leave its meaning unspoken, the remake feels honor bound to explain it. The direction, meanwhile, is merely competent, un-showy. Spike Lee has done more for the dolly shot in American cinema than anyone outside of Martin Scorsese, but here it feels like an affectation, as does the inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson as the belligerent head of the facility in which Doucett is imprisoned. He even gets a fairly obligatory crack about white people.
Lee’s recreation of Oldboy‘s famous fight sequence – our protagonist against a hoard of nameless goons – has a deliberate video-game feel to it, taking place in profile on multiple levels, like a hyper-realistic “Street Fighter”. It’s impressive, but can’t help but feel contrived, especially given the less-than-remarkable context.
While The Sopranos‘ Michael Imperioli is well cast as Doucett’s loyal and long-suffering friend, Chucky, Elizabeth Olsen seems out of place – Doucett and Chucky share more chemistry in their initial encounter than Brolin and Olsen’s Marie manage throughout the film; though maybe that’s partly down to the age gap.
As suggested by her breakout performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene (directed by Sean Bobbitt who serves as cinematographer here), Olsen is a remarkable actress with a particular brand of guarded vulnerability, but Lee’s film makes of her little more than a spirited victim.
Meanwhile, South African actor Sharlto Copley is put on standby as Doucett’s mysterious nemesis. Dark-eyed and fey, with a Svengali look, he certainly sells the emotional trauma that has driven his character to wreak such torment, but the film makes too much of his instability.
Similarly, Oldboy mis-serves itself in overplaying Joe’s apparent redemption. Flashbacks review confirm his status as not only a raging asshole but hysterically obnoxious bully – one referred to charitably, almost laughably as a lost soul – in order to foreground his resolution to become a good man.
Based on past behavior, however, Copley’s loathing of him seems a good deal less than inexplicable, which somewhat misses the point. After all, to quote Eastwood’s penetrating retort in Unforgiven, “Deserves got nothing to do with it”.
Without spoiling the twist that made the original Oldboy quite so twisted, suffice to say that it survives here intact. In this regard, however, the film holds back. By elaborating on its antagonist’s motivations and rushing through Doucett’s debasement, it ultimately feels neutered. In attempting to spare the audience, or perhaps the censor, the revelation loses its power.
Screenwriter Mark Protosevich’s additions to the plot, like TV show “Unresolved Mysteries of Crime”, feel like an attempt to set Oldboy apart, to explain if not quite justify its existence. Mostly, though, they feel like a gloss on its meaninglessness.
Compared to, say, Scorsese’s The Departed, a remake of Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, Lee’s Oldboy is beholden to what made the original show great and, as such, remains firmly in its shadow.
A generally adequate if unnecessary remake that’s almost certain to flop, Spike Lee’s Oldboy is neither good nor bad, merely bland, but, given the striking-ness of the original, that’s a crime itself.