There’s nothing inherently wrong with remakes, and to suggest otherwise is to deny the fundamental nature of storytelling itself. Of course, it’s certainly understandable that contemporary film audiences might feel otherwise, as the laziness and lack of vision with which Hollywood has repurposed pre-existing films has burdened the idea of a “remake” with needless cynicism, our recent commercial cinema effectively suggesting that a good story is only worth telling once. Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” is fascinating in how it reinforces that sad notion while also being an abysmal film in its own right, the movie practically martyring itself in order to illustrate how the problem with remakes is rooted in practice rather than theory.
Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy”, the middle chapter of the director’s informal Vengeance Trilogy and unquestionably the most famous Korean film of this young millennium, sure makes for fascinating source material. Itself borrowing a premise from a manga of the same name, “Oldboy” is the rare film with a premise so juicy that Hollywood was willing to accept a number of story beats that would otherwise have deemed a project as a box office biohazard. Park’s baroque masterpiece introduced us to a bumbling and unexceptional man named Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) who’s mysteriously abducted and locked in a prison-like motel room for 15 years, after which he’s promptly released back into the wild and challenged to discover the reasons behind his strange ordeal. An American remake has seemed inevitable since “Oldboy” received the Grand Prix from Quentin Tarantino’s jury at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, and you could practically hear a collective wail of “why didn’t we think of that?” echoing from Tinseltown.
While the film’s fiercely idiosyncratic nature has always made the idea of a remake feel somewhat quixotic, the explicitly and exclusively Korean elements of the original are so resistant to the idea of a note-for-note American remake that any Western version of the film would seemingly have no choice but to graft a new identity onto the bedrock of Park’s thrilling narrative. The film industry is convinced that audiences hunger for the spectacle of novelty, the safety of familiarity, and absolutely nothing in between. While remakes are en vogue because of how cleanly they fall into that second category, the best of them often achieve success by wading into that supposedly toxic middle ground. And when it was announced that Spike Lee was going to be directing the new version, the whole thing seemed to make a certain degree of sense. Of all the American directors that have the commercial cache to win a gig like this, few are as historically incapable of making a movie that doesn’t feel like their own (for better or worse).
And yet, Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” doesn't seem worthy of the possessive – Lee might be reluctant to reveal what it is, but there’s a good reason why this is the first movie he’s made that isn’t officially labeled as a “joint” (the best guess: studio interference). It doesn’t matter that it would be a mistake to judge a film like this based on how closely it cleaves to a fixed idea of who the director is, because the film so lacks any sort of coherent vision that – if not for the opening credits – it would be nearly impossible to identify him in the first place.
If the original film was a roller-coaster, Spike Lee’s remake is a malfunctioning carousel, jerkily orbiting around a fixed position – all the trappings of fun, but at the end of the day you’re just riding a plastic unicorn with a pole through its spine. While the story is essentially unchanged, the contributions of “I Am Legend” screenwriter Mark Protosevich offer the film its best chance at a unique sense of purpose (read our interview with Mark Protosevich here). The biggest and most transformative adjustment to the script is that the Oh Dae-su character, here reborn as Joe Doucette (a believably primitive Josh Brolin), isn’t merely drunk at the beginning of the film, he’s an outright alcoholic. We meet Joe as he skulks beneath an unctuous film of oily sweat, drinking on the job and brazenly neglecting his young daughter. Whereas Park’s movie kicked the plot into motion as soon as we understood Oh Dae-su to be a fool, Protosevich’s script zooms in on Joe’s life before it’s upended, revealing him to be a deeply unsympathetic guy in desperate need of a fresh start.
After watching Joe submarine a business deal because of an ill-advised pass at his client’s wife, it’s easy to see the first days he spends incarcerated in his motel prison as an unusually acetic form of rehab. The catch is that Joe’s captors, whomever they are, keep him supplied with a steady stream of booze during the first portion of his stint, as if forcing their confused inmate to wallow in the worst of his nature.
“Oldboy” spends so much time in Joe’s cell without advancing the plot in any meaningful way that it’s easy to believe Brolin’s claim that the film was hacked down from a more evenly paced three-hour cut (Lee swears that wasn’t the case, but the anemic and scattered second act suggests otherwise). The movie loses any sense of identity when Joe begins to search for that of his captor. As soon as he’s released from captivity – following the footsteps of a mysterious Asian woman (oh, the original movie was Asian!) who carries an umbrella that’s laughably emblazoned with the same strike marks that Joe carved into the flesh of his hand to mark the years that passed – the film begins a reckless dash to its shocking conclusion. Why was he imprisoned? More importantly, why was he released? The brilliance of Park’s film is how it recognizes that the answer to the latter question is less important than the fact that Oh Dae-su never thinks to ask it.
As is made bone-crunchingly clear during a short scene in which Joe dismantles a gaggle of teenage football players, Lee’s film is significantly more gruesome than Park’s, and yet at the same time feels far less threatening. It was likely inevitable that the film was going to feel vaguely parodic for fans of the original movie, but where Park’s violet style supported his film’s many eccentricities, the heightened elements of Lee’s film clash against his more bruising protagonist and grounded visual approach (the early portions of the film are shot on grainy 16mm). By the time that Joe’s torturer, Adrian (“District 9” star Sharlto Copley), enters the picture with all the subtlety of a Charlie Chan villain, Lee has already blurred the thin line between operatic and cartoonish.
Enter the magnetic Elizabeth Olsen as Marie Sebastian, a local outreach worker who crosses Joe’s path and immediately feels compelled to help him, whatever that might entail. While Olsen’s character does less to guide Joe than she does to discombobulate viewers familiar with this story, the earthy actress infuses the movie with a much needed dose of reality, adding a human dimension to a remake that’s more concerned with measuring up to a pre-existing movie than it is with recognizable human emotion. Olsen’s scenes with Brolin make for the most compelling moments of this unfortunate retelling, their raw intensity further exposing how reheated much of the film feels.
If this review feels overly preoccupied with the original “Oldboy”, it’s only because Lee’s film suicidally insists on being seen in that context. While it’s somewhat admirable for a remake to confront the source material head-on, the movie’s constant references and winks to Park Chan-wook’s version make it feel like the cinematic equivalent of going on a date with someone who knows your ex, less interested in earning your love than winning your preference. The most glaring example of this is inevitably the hallway fight, the famous long-take sequence in which Oh Dae-su / Joe returns to his motel hell and administers a major beating to dozens of thuggish employees. Park’s version was a rugged and breathlessly choreographed battle royale that irrevocably upped the stakes of Oh Dae-su’s quest, and Lee attempts to raise the bar by adding a second plane to the action. There’s no denying that Brolin and the stunt performers he abuses put in the work, but the fight – which is broken by a studio-mandated cut – is so determined to top its predecessor that it fails to serve an identifiable purpose within the context of the film itself (can movies have daddy issues?). When the battle kicks off with a cheesy guitar riff, you half expect an announcer to chime in and scream “Round one: Fight!”, Samuel L. Jackson’s costume having already invoked old “Street Fighter” games (oh, Samuel L. Jackson is in this, by the way).
This is a film that so tirelessly self-identifies as a remake that it never establishes an identity of its own. Lost in the limbo between amusing fans of the original and entertaining audiences who are new to this wild ride, “Oldboy” ultimately does neither. It was probably a fool’s errand for Spike Lee to attempt this project first place, but he would have been better served by a more decisive Solomon-like approach to the material rather than alternately tugging the story towards fidelity and gamesmanship. Protosevich’s script does its damnedest to extrapolate a uniquely American perspective from Oh Dae-su’s festering guilt, the character of Joe Doucette eventually becoming a comprehensive stand-in for a country that’s far more interested in cause than effect when it comes to interfering with foreign crises, but the film’s best ideas are constantly undermined by its need to conform to the pre-existing version.
Whenever the movie seems to be finding its own way, the plot snaps back to the Korean edition, going so far as to recreate the sets of the older film as though it were a north star for an audience that has since lost the ability to follow new stories. Or perhaps it’s Lee who simply couldn’t find his way into this one, as his gift for tonal dexterity completely fails him, here. One of the script’s most effective adjustments is in how it alters the villain’s backstory to more perfectly reflect the suffering Joe is forced to endure, but Lee’s handling of the flashbacks is campy to the extreme, eliciting fits of laughter only moments before the film’s biggest reveal.
A lot of remakes use their source material as a crutch, but Lee’s film commits the far greater sin of transforming the original’s greatest strengths into his movie’s most glaring weaknesses. A slumming Spike Lee is still better than most directors at the top of their game, but “Oldboy” isn’t just Lee’s worst movie, it’s practically his “Wicker Man”.
SCORE: 3.9 / 10