DIR: Spike Lee • WRI: Mark Protosevich • PRO: Doug Davison, Roy Lee, Spike Lee • DOP: Sean Bobbitt • ED: Barry Alexander Brown • DES: Sharon Seymour • MUS: Roque Baños • CAST: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley
On paper, everything about this remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 cult action thriller seems promising: one of the best films of the past ten years as source material, an ‘auteur’ director in Spike Lee, Josh Brolin starring with the up-and-coming Elizabeth Olsen and the recently excellent Sharlto Copley.
The plot is hard to fault, too. Simple in its synopsis but complex in its narrative, Oldboy tells the story of Joe Doucett (Brolin), who is kidnapped and held prisoner with no explanation and with no idea who might want to hold him captive. After 20 years in captivity, Joe is released with a phone and a wallet full of money. With no answers and many questions, he sets out to seek vengence on the stranger who stole 20 years of his life.
All good omens that this particular Hollywood remake of a highly respected piece of Korean filmmaking could be the exception to the recent rule of lazily recycling much loved non-English language genre films. With a chequered history in this regard, perhaps Hollywood was learning to give its source material the respect it deserves, letting the spirit of the original film shine through while making the story relevant to a new audience?
But alas, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Oldboy has been transformed from an imaginative, gripping and (crucially) original action thriller into a by-the-numbers revenge thriller.
Lee takes Park’s complex protagonist and changes him into the standard ‘bad man who learns the error of his ways and vows to reform himself’, explicitly showing the audience in the first act that Joe is a bad husband, an even worse father, a cocksure businessman and a terrible drunk. The original left all this to be implied.
See also the signature action set piece, in which the protagonist battles a posse of assorted ne’er-do-wells with a hammer. In Park’s version, this is simply thrilling in its execution, shot (imaginatively) as a cross-section of the building. In Lee’s, it’s shot in a similar way, showing his obvious respect for what is an impressively-constructed long shot. But the scene is let down by the fight’s choreography, which looks more like a dance with its over-exaggerated falls and dives rather than anything approaching peril.
The plot has been given the Hollywood treatment, too. In Park’s Oldboy, the mystery surrounding the main character’s imprisonment and sudden release only deepens as the film progresses, further drawing you in. But Lee unleashes major plot revelations much sooner than Park, leaving precious little mystery in the film’s final third. Where the original perfectly straddled the grey in-between, Lee looks to attain a perfect symmetry in the unfolding storyline between Brolin’s Joe and his mysterious captor. The director seems to have little trust in his audience, pointing out every little plot nuance, just in case we missed it.
It becomes increasingly clear that Spike Lee is merely a gun for hire on this project, rather than the ‘auteur’ of his earlier career. A fact confirmed when Lee neuters the original’s brave ending.
Most of the supporting cast do an admirable job with some below-par scripting, with special mention for Copley who is unrecognisable here, playing the polar opposite of his deadly mercenary in Elysium. Brolin works tirelessly trying to combine the physically demanding action set pieces with the deep inner turmoil being felt by Joe but, in the end, neither of these entirely convince.
There are things to be admired, though. The film looks great. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography combined with the set design give Joe’s imprisonment a washed-out dullness, juxtaposed nicely with the outside world’s vibrancy.
Measured against Park’s original, Lee’s Oldboy is dumbed-down and hamfisted (and that’s before mentioning the exaggerated product placement). While the film shows the occasional flash of promise, Lee would have done better to fully embrace the brilliance of the original, rather than using it merely as a blueprint.
Oldboy is released on 6th December 2013