Spike Lee, for some reason or another, decided to tackle what some would consider an impossible task: to remake one of the greatest films of all time. Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy is a hallmark of international cinema and unquestionably one of the most original movies made of the 21st century. So, of course, when the opportunity to adapt it for North American audiences came up—someone in Hollywood took it.
That person, originally, was Steven Spielberg. And let me just say right now—praise Jesus, praise Allah, praise Carl Sagan that Spielberg passed on this project. The last thing anyone needed was Will Smith in his Men in Black outfit assisting the E.T. director in turning a hardboiled, psychologically mind-bending concept into a bog standard action film. Now, with that out of the way, it’s time to address Spike Lee’s Oldboy starring Josh Brolin.
The film begins in 1993, as the original did, and introduces us to Joe Doucette, a 20-something deadbeat dad with an alcohol problem. The first fifteen minutes of the film essentially consist of Josh Brolin wandering around and making obnoxious, loud noises. We’re given a few scenes of Doucette being an asshole, and then the film picks up immediately once he is inexplicably locked away.
The story from that point forward is all familiar if you’re a fan of Park Chan-Wook’s original. Joe is imprisoned for twenty years, he is framed for the murder of his wife, and his three-year-old daughter grows up without a father. The imprisonment scenes in Lee’s film stack up to those in the original. In certain aspects, they surpass the 2003 film by exemplifying the fear in absolute solitude. Some of these scenes are masterstrokes in Spike Lee’s filmography and some feel as if they were rushed for time. The same could be said for later scenes in the movie. It really becomes a problem that affects it in subtle yet jarring ways as the film progresses.
For instance, once Joe is released and Elizabeth Olsen’s character Marie is introduced as a love interest it’s difficult to buy into their relationship due to the pacing of how quickly things advance. One minute she mistakes Joe for a violent homeless man, the next she’s randomly called upon to aid him (without any sort of question as to how he obtained her number), and then she’s his new fuckbuddy—all within a matter of thirty minutes. The suspension of disbelief required is a bit too much. Not to mention that after stumbling upon the notes that Joe has written while imprisoned—which happen to include an admission that he is a felon wanted for murder—there’s not a single ounce of doubt in her mind that’s he’s telling the truth and not a schizophrenic psychopath. Chan-Wook’s version, which escalates the relationship at the same pace, doesn’t suffer the same problem as Lee’s because the protagonist’s love interest is a naïve and shy yet adventurous 18-year-old. Marie, on the other hand, is an independent 23-year-old that is self-established and has been through the ringer. There’s really no reason for her to cling to Joe like she does as quickly as she does.
In spite of the flaws in character building, it should be noted that Olsen deserves credit for delivering some of the film’s best acting. Samuel L. Jackson also uplifts Oldboy whenever on screen. Without a doubt, the best scene of the movie is shared between he and Brolin, when Brolin’s character Joe has Jackson’s character Chaney bound to a table and is removing strips of flesh from his neck. There isn’t a single moment where Jackson disappoints, despite the ridiculous blonde mohawk he’s forced to wear early on.
Sharlto Copy co-stars as the film’s antagonist, Adrian Pryce, and unfortunately becomes its weakest point. Copley comes off as a comic book-esque bad guy, which I’m not really sure is a valid complaint considering this is based on a manga property… Regardless, it doesn’t work well here. His over-the-top moments are not menacing or weird, but douchey.
Perhaps the movie’s strongest aspect is that it has done what only Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead accomplished before it; Spike Lee has taken an established property, remixed it, and created something new entirely that compliments its predecessor. Oldboy (2013) hits all the familiar beats of Oldboy (2003) but looks and feels like a completely different monster. Lee’s Oldboy is new and exciting, and possibly the finest film he’s made since 25th Hour. The changes that have been made to the story are (for the most part) necessary and well-executed. As a matter of fact, some of the moments that hold closest to the original are rough around the edges. To Lee’s credit, he’s created something that will provide a unique and dissimilar experience for fans and casual, unknowing moviegoers alike.
Adapting Oldboy for western audiences was always going to be a losing battle. Fans, critics, and cinema snobs were never going to accept a reimagining of the classic Korean film, especially with somebody as controversial and irritating as Spike Lee behind the camera. To add to Oldboy’s handicapping, FilmDistrict apparently cut over an hour of footage from the final version, much to the chagrin of director Spike Lee and star Josh Brolin—who both have publicly voiced their displeasure with the state of the theatrical cut. I am curious to see what this 3 hour version of Spike Lee’s Oldboy looks like. I suspect that, much like Blade Runner, reimplementing the scenes will only produce a stronger and more well rounded film-going experience.
As it stands, Oldboy is not a bad film. It’s very hit-or-miss but manages to be entertaining throughout the span of its entire runtime. It’s not a must-see film by any means, but worth viewing when it eventually lands on Netflix.