Directed by Spike Lee
Distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
The first question that must be asked is…why? Why would Spike Lee feel like he needed to reach back and tinker with a beloved film like Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy? I suppose anticipation of box office riches would be the obvious answer. But then, wouldn’t he want to pick a film he could at least do justice to with a remake? Because Oldboy was apparently well out of his reach.
Park’s Oldboy is a fantastic film. A mystery that leaves the viewer stunned, breathless. Its main character, Dae-su Oh (played unforgettably by Min-sik Choi), was amazing. He had such layers and personality. Oh could be brutal in one scene, then make you laugh in the next. But his most admirable trait was his love for the young sushi chef he meets, Mi-do. It’s the charisma of Dae-su and the slow build-up of the relationship between him and Mi-do that gives Oldboy a lot of its power. Unfortunately, when directing the remake, Lee missed those two points completely.
Instead of Choi’s Oh, we get Josh Brolin’s Joe Doucett as the lead character. And to Brolin’s credit, he does what’s asked of him. We get a little bit more backstory on Joe than we did on Dae-su, and we find that Joe is a complete asshole. Brolin plays it well. He goes through some impressive physical changes in the role as well which are also really amazing. He’s just not given a character with any real depth. He spends most of the film hulking around the screen like a jacked-up version of Henry Rollins as Spike Lee basically turns Oldboy into an action film.
In Lee’s Oldboy he spends more time with his main character confined in the hotel room and removes much of the growing love between the two main characters. This is pretty much as backwards as you can get, as, even though Joe’s confinement is a major part of the story, it is not worth sacrificing time between Joe and his love interest, Marie (Elizabeth Olsen). Joe and Marie’s relationship seems completely arbitrary and senseless, and he presents her with nothing that would attract a beautiful young girl to a crotchety older man. He’s surly and distant and closed off. We’re supposed to believe she falls in love with this? Yeah, he’s jacked, but looking like she does, Marie could get just about any man she wanted. Joe is a shit and we don’t see any kind of tender moment between them until about an hour and 10 minutes into the hour and 40-minute run time. And Joe is still indifferent toward her.
There are some positive parts of Spike Lee’s Oldboy that should be heralded. The action, especially the choreography of the fight scenes, was fantastic. If nothing else, Joe Doucett taught himself how to kick ass after being locked up for 20 years, and it shows. There are some real bone-shattering moments in the movie. Additionally, the F/X are outstanding. From the infamous claw hammer to shotgun wounds to all sorts of other bits of nastiness, the F/X team on this film should be applauded. Also, it never hurts to have Samuel L. Jackson in the cast to drop a couple “muthafuckas” and spice up the dialogue. Jackson plays Chaney, who was originally Mr. Park (played sufficiently shiftily by Dal-su Oh) in the 2003 version of the film. Jackson retains the flair that Dal-su brought to the role and has his own nasty run in with Joe just as Park had lost some chompers to Dae-su.
However, as much fun as it was to have Sam Jackson in the film, some other additions to the cast didn’t work quite as well. Michael Imperioli was one of the most impressive actors in the cast of “The Sopranos,” but in Oldboy he’s just meh and delivers one of the most ridiculous death scenes in recent memory. Tongue out and all! Also (and this was a much more egregious error), Sharlto Copley’s performance as Adrian Doyle Pryce is almost cartoonish. Copley’s (who rocketed to stardom after his amazing work in District 9) character is the Americanized version of the main Oldboy antagonist, Woo- jin Lee. Of course that character in the 2003 film was a very rich, very proper businessman. Adrian Doyle Pryce (even the name is overkill) is supposed to be the same type of man, but between Copley’s acting and Spike Lee’s direction, the character comes out as a complete joke. A caricature. From his ridiculous facial hair to his overly flamboyant nature and mannerisms, this character, the main antagonist, was way off the mark.
There were plenty of nods to the original film in the remake. It was cool to see the angel wings Dae-su bought his daughter show up on a street vendor in the new movie. There was also an octopus Joe stops to admire in a restaurant’s fish tank. Many scenes were reminiscent of the first film… the dumpling search and the Double Dragon-esque fight scene were two notable ones. But too much was missing. Lee changed major parts of the story and there was no transformation in Joe (outside of a physical one) like the film needs. Dae-su was an evolving character; Joe is a berserker from the get-go who knows one speed: kill. But where Spike really drops the ball is in Oldboy‘s legendary climactic scene. Without giving away the secrets, let’s just say the original film’s ending is unforgettable. Choi’s performance is heart-wrenching and extreme. His emotional pain is palpable. In the case of Joe, we don’t get much. It is Brolin’s most emotional moment in the movie, but his character never gives much, and in the climax of the film that doesn’t change. Simply put, Joe Doucett is no Dae-su Oh.
There are two brief featurettes on the Blu-ray. The first is a short making-of segment that basically shows us Spike Lee looking ridiculous in various oversized outfits featuring gaudy New York sports teams’ logos. The most memorable part of it is a quote from Brolin wherein he says that he started wanting to make movies as a career when he saw Spike Lee’s film He’s Got Game. Really? That was the one that did it for you, huh?
Additionally, there is a much shorter segment called Transformation which basically shows the changes Brolin’s body and physical appearance went through for the movie. (And this is exactly where Lee misses the point. The movie is as much about the changes inside the main character as his outward appearance.) This is basically only a little more than a trailer for the movie, about the same run time, with the highlight being Spike Lee calling Brolin’s performance in Oldboy a “tour de force.” One hand washes the other, I suppose. The Blu-ray also contains some alternate/extended scenes as well as Talking Heads, a featurette discussing the Oldboy story, and some clips from Joe’s favorite workout video.
It’s tough to go back and remake a film as beloved as Oldboy. It never works out well. And, unfortunately, if you want the publicity that comes with remaking a picture like this, you’ve got to know you’re going to be compared to it. In this case, as in most cases, the remake just can’t stand up to the original. Brolin is certainly capable of more than we saw from him, but this new Oldboy would have been best left locked away somewhere.
2 out of 5
2 out of 5