By Dan Simolke | Shadow and Act November 28, 2013 at 12:19PM
I was a big fan of Chan-wook Park’s “Oldboy” when I was younger, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. I’m also not one to be dismissive of remakes (I mean, let’s be honest, most movies are remakes in some capacity) and was hopeful when an auteur like Spike Lee was announced to direct the project. In the original, a man is held captive for 15 years (Lee extends it to 20) without knowing why, only to be released again without explanation. Like any curious individual would do, he tries to unravel the mystery, but only partly realizes that someone is pulling the strings every step of the way. Josh Brolin plays the man, named Joe Doucette in this version and Oh Dae-su in the original.
“Oldboy” has become a bit of a cult item since its release, and in the US it's one of the most well known modern South Korean movies. Steven Spielberg and Will Smith were even going to do a remake at one point, but that fell through. Even with its popularity, I would have to assume a general American audience isn't familiar with the original movie, and Lee's film goes into some pretty dark territory for such a high-profile release. It doesn't back down, but it's also missing something that made the original hit so hard.
There are some disturbing twists that made Park's film so memorable for a lot of people, and they remain intact here, but with a few, mostly inconsequential, tweaks I won't spoil. There's also a fight scene that scrolls down a hallway while the protagonist takes on multiple attackers with a hammer that became famous and the remake seems to want to top it by letting it take place on more than one floor. The scene happens when Brolin returns to the compound where he was imprisoned and tries to get answers. In this movie, the cut that leads directly to the storied fight scene occurs in a way that makes it seem distractingly separate from the action that precedes it. It’s as if Lee was making the movie, knew he had to include the scene, but neglected any cohesiveness. In the movie, Brolin is escaping the compound when it happens, so its existence isn’t implausible. It’s just that the abrupt way the film moves into the scene makes it feel like the character is advancing to a new level in a game like Tekken or Mortal Kombat. It's just awkward.
Lee and his DP, Steve McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt, shot the film in 35mm, 16mm and apparently even Super 8 formats, which is nice to know in this day and age. It gives the film a gritty look when necessary and it has a more textured feel than most mainstream releases lately. This updated version also doesn’t skimp on brutal violence and generally disturbing content, but it doesn’t hit home like it did in Park’s original. This could be because I already knew what to expect, but I also feel like this is a bit like the CliffsNotes version of this material. We don’t spend anytime developing anything and each plot point feels like another bullet on a checklist. Brolin has mentioned he prefers the longer, unreleased cut that Lee shot, and I’d be interested to see if it adds anything to the characters. Of course, the people involved with the making of a film always seem to prefer the cut of the movie we don't end up seeing, so I'm often inclined to think it's just an easy way for them to defend against any negative criticism.
Brolin is actually quite good here, making it clear he was the right choice for the role, but he feels underserved by the script. I’ll admit that for the first 30 minutes or so, I thought this was going to be better than Park’s movie, but the second half feels surprisingly by-the-numbers for such dark material; if mostly due to its workmanlike execution. Michael Imperioli and James Ranson have almost nothing to do as supporting characters who help Brolin when he’s released from captivity and Elizabeth Olsen gets a mostly reactionary role as his “love interest.” Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley are the main antagonists and while Jackson does his usual schtick, Copley pushes things into cartoon territory. In fact, Jackson and Copley both physically resemble what bosses in a manga-inspired, vaguely futuristic video game might look like.
My, admittedly predictable, advice would be to just seek out Park's movie if you haven't seen it. I also don't think this update is entirely worthless though. It's certainly not boring, and there's some great technical filmmaking (mostly in the first half) and Lee makes sure to include his signature double-dolly shot, here making it look as if Brolin is gliding through the city streets. The disappointment is that the movie ultimately feels like a rehash, and that's the primary thing a remake should avoid. A fairly stylish rehash, but that doesn't change the fundamental problem.