You can’t accuse Spike Lee of walking away from a challenge.
The 2003 Korean film Oldboy was the kind of crossover classic that made audiences swoon. The tale of a man who is mysteriously imprisoned for more than a decade and then seeks revenge, it picked up the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, and brought director Park Chan-wook international acclaim in the process. With a combination of brutal violence, disturbing plot twists, and magical realism, it’s the type of movie that most filmmakers would never think of remaking — yet when the decision was made to create an English-language version, the director of Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X agreed to take it on.
Starring Josh Brolin, Lee’s version isn’t a shot-for-shot reconstruction and it’s not really a love letter, either. It’s more like a game of cinematic Telephone, strongly echoing Chan-wook’s film at times while also taking chances to hopefully improve upon it. However, in a tale where the hero is constantly asking questions about his predicament, the audience may be left with the most important one of all: why?
Screenwriter Mark Protosevich is willing to break from THE ORIGINAL
Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, and I’ll frame it like the movie does — Joe is an asshole. He’s the kind of vodka-chugging drunk that hits on a client’s girlfriend, and when he talks to his ex-wife it seems like he’s doing it primarily to demonstrate what a jerk he can be. There’s not much to like in Joe at first, but the time we spend with him before he’s abducted and dumped in a windowless hotel room is the first sign that screenwriter Mark Protosevich is willing to break with precedent. In the 2003 film, we saw just a brief, drunken interlude with Choi Min-sik’s antihero. It’s played almost for laughs, keeping in line with the film’s evolving tone, but Protosevich and Lee aren’t aiming for that kind of detached abstraction. Their Oldboy is striving to be a film that’s grounded in reality — and if it makes Brolin’s character that much more despicable, so be it.
Joe’s held captive in that hotel room for 20 years, where the TV serves as his only companion. That’s where he learns his wife has been killed — a crime for which he’s been framed — and where he sees the seminal moments of world history pass him by. It’s also how he learns that his daughter has grown up to be a talented young cellist, and realizing the error of his ways, Joe decides to clean up. He gets sober, starts writing his daughter letters, and begins to plot an escape. Then one day he’s set free, and begins his quest to find his daughter and the person responsible for his imprisonment.
Theatrical performances push up against the film's realistic tone
The hardest part of jumping on board with Oldboy — whether it’s the original film or the manga that inspired it — has been getting past that initial premise, and it’s where the remake features some of its best moments. Brolin’s performance is raw and animalistic; he’s able to plumb the darkness as well as sell Joe’s moral course correction. It’s simply uncomfortable at times, even when Brolin’s wrapped in a rather ridiculous fake beard and wig.
It’s when Joe is out of that room that Lee’s film hits some bumps. Samuel L. Jackson plays a prison guard that looks like he’s straight out of The Fifth Element, while Sharlto Copley (District 9, Elysium) is the eccentric, vaguely European villain pulling Joe’s strings. They’re big, broad performances, full of the larger-than-life dramatics both actors have proven they’re capable of, but they don’t quite fit within the world. The bombast pushes up against the realistic tone of Lee’s Oldboy. It’s almost the inverse of the original film, which started big and then became more brutal and stripped-down along the way (unflinching hammer-on-teeth violence can do that).
There’s a constant tension between the grittiness of the movie — it feels unmistakably like a Spike Lee movie in that regard — and the story’s more fantastic elements. It’s clearly one of the ways in which the director was giving the film his own authorial stamp, but it doesn’t quite fit together. It alternately takes the thrill out of Joe’s investigation or neuters the sheer insanity of what’s happening to him, striking at the very core of what made the original so fascinating.
Speaking of which, the infamous Oldboy hammer battle is here, and while it may not carry the surprise and invention the original did a decade ago Lee’s version does provides the same satisfying catharsis. Tempering Joe along the way is a social worker named Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen). Olsen’s performance provides the human touch that’s missing in the film’s cold world, though for the sake of plot she makes a few questionable leaps in judgement that are never really addressed or explained.
Fans of the original are no doubt wondering about the finale, which was notorious well before audiences burned out on shocking twist endings. I’ll only say that Lee’s Oldboy does not precisely replicate what came before. Yes, we learn why Joe has been imprisoned, and yes, the ending is challenging, but Protosevich’s script puts a spin on things that will arguably resonate even better for domestic audiences. This Oldboy is not just a tale of despair, guilt, and recognition of one’s failings, but of the possibilities of redemption as well. Through a certain lens, it’s almost uplifting — albeit in the grimmest way possible.
Through a certain lens it's almost uplifting
Remaking a beloved film is a no-win scenario in a lot of ways, but what it can do is introduce new audiences to exceptional stories. We only need to look back at The Ring for an example; the disturbing imagery of that film is now a cultural trope, something that never would have happened if Gore Verbinski hadn’t riffed on Hideo Nakata’s original.
But that only works if the new film can stand on its own. Spike Lee told us that the only mandate from Park Chan-wook was that he and Brolin make their own movie, and they’ve certainly done that. In some fleeting moments, they may have even improved upon it. But the price seems to have been the magic and mystery that made the original such a treasured film in the first place.
Oldboy opens tomorrow, November 27th.