Anyone who knows me personally or has read my review of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 revenge thriller Oldboy will be aware that the Korean film is one of my favourite movies of this young century. Its initial success and cult status in the West meant it was only a matter of time before a Hollywood remake reached the cinema. Talk of a Steven Spielberg-Will Smith project came and went and instead, ten years after the original, we’re hit squarely in the face with Spike Lee’s Oldboy, a sanitised and surprisingly safe American version. The film is based on the Korean movie rather than the original Japanese Manga but contains subtle and often baffling differences.
The story is of Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin). Doucett is a man on the verge of losing his job, a man who spends too much time with the bottle and not enough time with his wife and young daughter. Following a heavy night of drinking he awakens in what appears to be a motel room. It soon becomes apparent that his ‘room’ is in fact a cell, a cell in which he will spend the next twenty years of his life locked up for a reason that he cannot fathom. While incarcerated Joe is framed for his wife’s murder and sees his young daughter adopted. Inexplicably after two decades Joe is released and given the task of working out who kept him prisoner and why he was framed for the grizzly murder of his wife.
Oldboy is not a good film. It struggles even to be an average film but I feel as though I should at least give the plot the benefit of the doubt. Despite taking some disappointing changes to the Korean film, the central ideas and themes are still strong. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the plot because I am so familiar with it already but to try and imagine it with fresh eyes, it’s a great story. One of the problems though is that there are too many logical inconsistencies. It feels far too staged that almost the first person Joe meets upon his release is Elizabeth Olsen’s Marie, a nurse who helps Joe uncover the mysteries surrounding his imprisonment. There is also a huge problem with Sharlto Copley’s cartoon villain baddie, Adrian Pryce. His costume and mannerisms seem based on illusionist Derren Brown and the everyman chill of the original film’s character is lost in a sea of over the top pageantry and a forced yet unnecessary accent. His motives also lack the punch of the Korean film.
In recent years Hollywood has been responsible for some scene for scene remakes of foreign language films and up until now I haven’t been a fan of these. I’ve always just thought people should watch the original movies and I say the same here. In this case though I wish Lee had made his film as a scene for scene remake. The changes to the plot that have been made rarely if ever improve upon the original and sometimes drastically reduce the impact of certain plot points. There is also a change to the film’s ending which lacks the power and awe of the original. Throughout, everything is toned down in its vibrancy, gore and style. It feels like Lee has been given a basic paint by numbers Oldboy kit which he has pieced together competently. It works fine but compared to the picture on the box it lacks colour. It’s a cheap plastic copy of a gold plated original.
The question I keep asking myself is why? There appears to be two answers. The first is money and the second is stupidity. The studios behind this film saw a chance to make money on a seemingly safe bet. The film wouldn’t cost too much and has enough of a fan base already that it’s bound to break even. Unfortunately for them it has at time of writing made just 1/15th of its budget back and looks to be heading towards massive commercial failure. With financial gain out of the way, the second reason is to bring the story to a new audience. Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is a ten year old film which looks fantastic a decade on. It’s often on television (in the UK at least) and is available for just a few Pounds online or on the high street. The only reason that someone who wanted to see it, wouldn’t have is because they didn’t want to read subtitles. Well they got the film they deserve. They got a film which strips away the passion and awe of the original and gave them the bland, cardboard, TV dinner of a movie.
At this point I feel as though I need to stop ranting and get back to the movie. The direction isn’t bad in places and is sometimes quite interesting. There’s a nice scene early on in which Brolin appears to have a camera strapped to his back as he stumbles drunkenly around. There are also quite a few nice sweeps, tracks and pans which bring the camera to rest via interesting positions. I also thought that Elizabeth Olsen gave an excellent performance and that Josh Brolin was fine. Unfortunately that’s about where my plaudits for the movie end. As I’ve mentioned, Sharlto Copley puts in one of the strangest, most out of place performances I’ve seen and the usually towering presence of Samuel L. Jackson is reduced to a couple of also ran scenes. The corridor scene, so iconic in Park’s film is recreated here on several horizonal levels and from different angles but feels tame and overly choreographed. In the original the choreography was naturalistic and flowing whereas here it feels as though everyone is over thinking the next step. It also lacks blood and gore and small sections look sped up which gives the whole fight an unnatural, computerised appearance.
On the whole despite one or two nice flourishes and a plot which still impresses, Spike Lee’s Oldboy is a huge disappointment. It lacks panache and vibrancy but also fails to reach the dark depths of the original and skirts around the edges of danger, seemingly afraid to jump in and get itself messy. Despite occasional violence it feels like a caged lion, something with the potential to cause havoc but too constrained to do so.