Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Mark Protosevich
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L Jackson
Synopsis is here:
If you type Oldboy into your favourite search engine, you should notice that the 2003 Korean thriller appears first, above this year’s remake. I say this now as it reminds me of one thing: Spike Lee hasn’t ruined Oldboy. Has Matt Reeves ruined Let the Right One in? Has Gus Van Sant besmirched your memories of Psycho? No. They haven’t. If you think they have, then turn in your film fan card and give your original version DVD’s to someone else.
That said, while imitation is the highest form of flattery, such projects usually fail due to a misalignment of elements. The repeating of sequences may satisfy an audience who feel they’re above reading subtitles, yet these set pieces and narratives are regenerated without the reason why they were so beguiling in the first place. Often it’s something cultural that’s subtracted for the sake of boarding the perspective of the new viewers. Spike Lee’s Oldboy suffers because it’s full of such examples.
Unlike The Departed, Scorsese’s crime drama, which took the Hong Kong based Infernal Affairs and reformatted itself into a property that could stand on its own two feet, Oldboy merely eliminates the oddities of its Korean source material a simply movies the rest to American shores. The Oldboy narrative is so peculiar and the original director so particular that a straight up reimagining just doesn’t cut it.
If we liken films to cooking, Lee’s has the basic recipe, but it’s possibly missing the unami paste that gives us a certain flavour. Maybe certain ingredients have been placed in the oven a tad too long (explaining Sharlto Copley’s over baked performance). Perhaps it forgets when the pot needs to simmer and when everything needs to be brought to the boil. This is a film which looks like it should taste the same, but will have you reaching for the seasoning.
A scene we remember from the 2003 Oldboy has our lead protagonist devour a live octopus on screen as he wishes to eat something alive. After being locked up for 15 years, we are watching a character that is quite simply dead inside. He is consuming the creature for feeling. Fast forward ten years to the U.S counterpart. We have a moment in which Josh Brolin spies an Octopus briefly. We’ve suddenly shifted from an acute visual metaphor to a vague silly head nod. Now something which had significance is now rendered near meaningless.
Spike’s take on the originals infamous corridor sequence is one of the most striking moments of choreography of the year. It’s a solid piece of action filmmaking and yet still it misses the point. Instead of a character that is unsure of his capabilities, Brolin stomps on each stooge as if he was a superhero with little weakness. No weakness, no worry.
You shouldn’t really compare remakes to their original counterparts. However Lee’s Oldboy never strays too far from the original property, and when it does, it sways into the wrong direction. I can once again point you in the direction of Copley’s annoyingly distracting display, but here is also the matter of Elizabeth Olsen being left out to dry with the flatly portrayed character of Marie, as well as Brolin’s solid but overtly macho Joe Doucett who is set up as a raging animal from the start and little of the wounded beast which we remember Oh Dae-su.
You can sense that Spike is not that interested in the studio system. He’s avoided it for most of his career and Oldboy shows why. So many elements feel like studio influence as opposed to director’s choice. Take away a few Spike traits and Oldboy could have been filmed by anyone. There is little of Lee’s own persona or creativity to counterbalance the problems the translation brings, so the outcome feels like a mishandled exercise more than anything.
This American retelling loses much of the melodrama of the Korean film mostly because American retellings have little time for such things. Park Chan-Wook’s 2003 piece is a film that understands that stillness is as important as ferocity. It’s no surprise that when we look Park’s work in this year’s Stoker, it’s played with the same delicate touch. Spike's Oldboy is primal from the get go, but adds no layers to itself. Broiln is an animal that needs to be caged and that's it. There's little poetry to proceedings, the tragic nature of the outrageous twists is never really peeked at. Simply put: Oldboy is an opera that Spike tried to make a rap remix from.