Directed by Spike Lee
Oldboy screenwriter Mark Protosevich has endured a long, winding road with this project, which was initially going to be helmed by filmmaking giant Steven Spielberg with superstar Will “Blockbuster” Smith set to star. Imagining how much more tame and watered-down that final product might have been should make you appreciate just how bold Spike Lee’s version turned out, but knowing his work, you wouldn’t necessarily expect anything less.
With Josh Brolin and Lee attaching themselves to finally realize Protosevich’s script and a few white hot trailers teasing a potentially great remake of Park Chan-wook’s original revenge masterpiece, things looked quite promising. In its execution, however, Spike Lee’s Oldboy doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head – but it does drive a hammer through a few skulls deserving of Brolin and Lee’s wrath.
Really? Spike Lee’s Oldboy? That’s a thing? Initially, it doesn’t seem like a good fit for the legendary Brooklyn filmmaker, but the story does center around family, a dynamic that Lee likes to deconstruct and analyze in certain films from Do The Right Thing to She Hate Me. In Oldboy he doesn’t just destroy the family dynamic, he perverts it. Brolin’s character, Joe Doucett, has already done a great deal of damage to his family once the film begins: he’s divorced, doesn’t care about missing his daughter’s birthday, and struggles with severe alcoholism. After a pathetic all-night bender spurred on by losing a big client, he’s imprisoned without committing any crime (that he is aware of) in a faux hotel room that’s really a private dungeon. The days turn to months and then years as Doucett slowly goes mad.
A lot seems to be riding on the twist of this new version where Doucett finds out why he’s been imprisoned and then set free for seemingly no reason, but the original Oldboy is not just about the twist ending – a conclusion that approaches Shakespearean levels of tragedy; it’s about the path to revenge that leads to the darkest horror imaginable.
One of the reasons Spike Lee is even able to remake Oldboy a mere ten years later is that most mainstream moviegoers don’t know what happens in the final reel of the original and the film fans that have seen it don’t just talk about the ending. That’s a testament to the true craftsmanship of director Park’s film because there are memorable moments throughout and the original isn’t beholden to the shocking conclusion. When the reveal comes in Lee’s version, it’s more melodrama than heavy drama and is dangerously close to being just plain silly.
In fact, I would guess that when most people think of Oldboy, the first thing they think of is the hammer scene – the side-scrolling gang fight shot over one take. When Lee tackles the scene, it’s electric. It’s apparent by the staging and choreography that Lee and his team were clearly looking forward to showing their version. Shot on multiple levels, it’s kinetic and bloody and exhibits what can happen when brute strength and pure wrath are unleashed without warning. No guns are used, replaced instead with bricks, 2×4 lumber, pipes, and, of course, one very pissed off hammer. It’s the highlight of the film, and after it happens, the slow realization starts to set in that the rest of Oldboy just doesn’t really work.
Lee is more concerned with the imprisonment, lengthening the time from fifteen years in the original to twenty years in this version. This segment of the film is much longer than the original. As Doucett learns through a stagy newscast that his daughter is now an orphan after his ex-wife was brutally raped and murdered (presumably by him), Lee is allowed to explore the reality of how so many black families have been torn apart because the father and mother either end up dead or in jail, leaving a child alone and endangered. Now, he’s able to take that idea and cover it in a new and original way with the unique premise of a man not knowing why he was imprisoned and why he’s being set up.
Once released, Doucett is almost like an abused child, befriended by a volunteer trying to stay sober played by Elizabeth Olsen. She believes what’s happened to him, and they slowly start to form the first human relationship Doucett has had in years. From there, Oldboy becomes a slow-moving procedural that starts to piece together just who is behind all of this. Sharlto Copley plays the part of the mysterious villain and reveals himself rather early. His story and the way Copley plays him are both fairly ridiculous, and he’s never menacing in any significant way. He really comes off as a wounded child himself, too rich for his own good.
The reason why Oldboy doesn’t click and function as a fully realized film is that Lee doesn’t seem to be nearly as invested in the last half of the story, where Doucett uncovers the reasons why he was jailed and what the final secret really is. It feels like an epilogue after his version of the hammer sequence. The villain he seems more interested in is Samuel Jackson and his multi-colored mohawk. Once that portion of the film is over and Doucett explodes in a brilliant rage, Lee seems to tune out as if he’s grown tired of watching his own newscast and is ready to be set free of the Hollywood machine that probably forced his hand to make Oldboy in the first place. His next film, The Blood of Jesus, funded solely through Kickstarter, should be much more energetic and passionate.
2 1/2 out of 5