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Review: Spike Lee’s 'Oldboy' Is A Disappointing Rehash

by Dan Simolke
November 28, 2013 12:19 PM
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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.

Grade: C

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  • Dave's Deluxe | May 31, 2014 10:45 PMReply

    Well, I finally watched it this afternoon on a borrowed Blu-Ray. I will agree with the above rating.

    THE GOOD: Fight scenes are nicely choreographed and convincingly brutal. Enjoyed Spike's take on the "Hallway fight", although there seemed to be a bit of forgivable digital enhancement. Cinematography excellent: over-saturated popping color, high contrast and film grain added gritty feel. Story stays mostly faithful to original source material (you know what I mean if you've seen it.)

    THE BAD: All acting feels contrived and unrehearsed, occasionally wooden and melodramatic, bordering on soapy across the board. Brolin's Big Reveal performance at the end feels particularly false. Direction seems unable to fully realize the dynamics of widescreen format.

    THE UGLY: Many moments of unintentional acting hilarity, like Brolin stuffing his face full of dumplings in the restaurant with a "Eureka!" look and the expression on (no spoiler)'s face when he's getting choked to death ("You called her a whore!").

    Not a lot of folks will see this "review"; if you find it (without me sending you a link) and you know me, tell me and I'll buy you a drink! Cheers all.

    WELP, back to work! These Fed-Ex packages won't deliver themselves.......

  • Marie | December 2, 2013 9:51 AMReply

    "In fact, Jackson and Copley both physically resemble what bosses in a manga-inspired, vaguely futuristic video game might look like."

    Maybe that's because the original film WAS based on a manga. It's sloppy to review a movie and not cite the original source which was a comic book, NOT the South Korean film.

  • ska-triumph | December 3, 2013 6:18 PM

    I understood that the critic meant in the context of the film's reality. The tone is supposed to be more grounded and contemporary than the original film, and certainly more than the manga. So to have the only two viable antagonists dressed up and chewing scenery as live-action cartoons - while the lead protagonists are acting like the story is an average thriller - is a legit critique.

  • Donella | November 30, 2013 10:28 AMReply

    The problem is, most Americans DO NOT WANT TO SEE THE ORIGINAL.

    If they had wanted to see the original, they would have had ten years to do so. Not many took advantage of the opportunity.

    Just like Rec (Quarantine), Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Let Me In, The Experiment... a certain fan segment becomes attached to the original and nothing else will ever do.

    Others walk in with low or "no" expectations or prejudices and enjoy the show.

    It's all up to you whether or not you're gonna have a good day.

  • Donella | December 2, 2013 10:58 AM

    Maria, North Americans are notorious around the world for refusing to speak or understand another language.

    For refusing to recognize geography beyond Canada and Mexico.

    For eating at McDonalds instead of local cuisine.

    And for refusing to read subtitles.

    Yes, it's a shame, but whatever. There it is.

  • Marie | December 2, 2013 9:56 AM

    Sorry, but I think it's incredibly narrow-minded to only watch films if the actors are American and speak English. There's no plausible reason--other than greed--to remake a good foreign movie if all you're going to change is the language. I saw the South Korean Oldboy and the Swedish miniseries of Dragon Tattoo and thought them incredibly well-done and entertaining. Their remakes are pointless. The Dragon Tattoo remake was downright boring and did poor business, deservedly so. I'm fascinated by so-called film-lovers who lack the imagination and patience to see a movie from a different country (not to mention those who can't watch a movie unless it's in color.) Fans cling to the original versions of movies for one reason: they're BETTER.

  • Blackman | November 30, 2013 5:31 AMReply

    White people's critique of Anything Black SHOULD BE DISMISSED!

    This writer sounds like a whinny A$$ fragile little boy.

    If I were you, I wouldn't put any credence in the above written trash.

  • Max Schwartz | December 1, 2013 2:48 PM

    Congrats, you racist know-nothing, your idiotic hypocrisy legitimizes actual racism against black people. The author of this article is very clear about what he likes and doesn't like in the film, and he does not in any way dismiss it based on race of the filmmaker; your moronic response is to dismiss the criticism based on the race of the author. You are semi-literate ghetto scum, a real hypocrite neanderthal.

  • Mr. Marin | November 29, 2013 4:23 PMReply

    I had only heard of the original when I heard that Spike would helm its "reinterpretation". I checked out the original and thought it was OK. Definitely wasn't life changing as some make it seem. Maybe I'm just not that into foreign films, maybe this version was best suited for me. Saw this version at the premiere and had fun and thought it was pretty good. However, I am very aware that Film District interfered and made their own force edits. Being a whole-hearted supporter of Spike, this disappointed me and made me wonder if I had in fact watched a film of his. Again, I liked it but I know had Spike been a bit more hands on with it that it could probably be a better film.

  • Lawrence | November 29, 2013 4:06 PMReply

    Well. here is the link to a Spike Lee produced written and directed original film. (sorry S&A wont allow links) For those of you complaining lets all support. It ends today so hurry.

  • Man-Over-Bored | November 29, 2013 1:47 PMReply

    (In my elderly man voice) I remember back when Spike was a relevant filmmaker, making enduring and important films. Now: a remake of Oldboy? Really? And it's mediocre at best? Spike, Spike, we hardly knew ye...

  • Donella | November 29, 2013 12:41 PMReply

    I wondered where the dolly shot would be.

  • Novel Idea | November 29, 2013 12:07 PMReply

    Here's a novel idea. Why not stop with the remakes and start writing your own original stuff. Every time a legitimate filmmaker (Spike Lee, for example) makes a remake, it's like them announcing that they are no longer creative enough to keep people interested. Welcome to Hollywood, land of the repeat, home of the generic. Give us two hours and we'll give you junk!

  • CareyCarey | November 28, 2013 9:11 PMReply

    Consider the source... "I was a big fan of Chan-wook Park's "Oldboy" when I was younger" ~ DAN SIMOLKE

    Okay, that's Dan's point of reference. But I believe it was Tambay who said most have not seen the original. And see, I am prone to believe that. I had never seen the film ( I watch hundreds every years) but about 2 years ago it received a little press (don't ask me why) here at S&A. Well, being that I am always looking for movies I've not seen, yet others are raving about, I ordered a copy from my old Blockbuster account (they'd send them through the mail). Now I find myself sitting with Ms. Other Song. I mean, I wouldn't necessarily say the movie sucked... but minus a few shocking moments, it was no big deal. In fact, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone I know. But it's safe to say there are those who enjoy this genre (wackey manga-inspired over-the-top mess), I just don't know any. And, I have to say it, I could not relate to the "characters". Take that as you will.

    But the following caught my eye --> " It's certainly not boring, and there's some great technical filmmaking (mostly in the first half)... The disappointment is that the movie ultimately feels like a rehash."

    Rehash? To whom? And, is that necessarily a bad thing?

    Now here's where I'm at. Spike Lee & Samual Jackson & Brolin & Not Boring = I'm all in! Listen, I am not a film student nor do I watch movies with a pen and paper in my hand (jotting down technical flaws, drab camerawork, etc), I go to movies to be entertained. I do not believe this film will let me down.

  • CC | November 29, 2013 7:25 PM

    Mr. Marin, I mean what I say. Entertainment is the first calling card for me. To that point, I couldn't have said it better than the reader, Solid B who said "I totally disagree with the notion that black people need to be reminded of the horrors of slavery and the best way to do this is with a major motion picture. When I spend my hard earned money on a movie I want to be entertained. I do not want to be preached to, enlightened, educated or given a code to decipher. Make me laugh, cry or scare the hell out me (for that moment in time) but please no didacticism... stop telling your audience how they are suppose to react to your art."

    DAMN, she killed that!

    ...and now my biggest quandary is which film will get my money first, Black Nativity or Spike's "Oldboy"? Each has not received the best "reviews" but both have something (many somethings) I KNOW will do me.

  • Mr. Marin | November 29, 2013 4:28 PM

    If the last sentences you stated are purposes in seeing a film and this one in particular, you won't be disappointed.

    Fans of the original are so butt hurt that they come into the film without an open mind and beef to start dissecting the film in every frame. Like I said earlier, I enjoyed it. Saw the original, but I wasn't THAT crazy about it. This is perhaps Spike's most Hollywood effort and maybe because he was muzzled by Film District a bit creatively.

  • Ska-triumph | November 28, 2013 4:45 PMReply

    Great and fair-minded review, which I totally agree with. Saw a matinee here in NYC Thanksgiving Day. Every point you wrote hit me the exact same way; "workmanlike execution" is what I saw in the first five minutes which made me go 'uh-oh." This ain't Spike Lee, with this forced, stilted character setup.

    The prison room scenes and sequences worked for sure but the relationships were "weak" even for this thriller genre. Like it just had to plot away with stock characters, and drab camerawork. The cast could only hold up the story so much; Brolin did his usual fully-committed work.

    Truly a disappointment. I'll be seeing it again for a film club (maybe revisit the original in between) so I'll seek more depth (aka positives) the next go round.

    As for my fellow commenters: Spike ain't the first director to do his best with a studio interfering or re-cutting his/her work. He knew the deal getting in there, partially as a hired hand. That's why director's/ Bluray versions exist. Sorry but that's non-independent business - unless a Weinstein is involved.

  • Mr. Marin | November 29, 2013 4:30 PM

    I agree a bit when it came to the character relationships and such. The said 3 hr version - the director's cut - supposedly honed in on that aspect more. I don't know why the studio was so hard on Spike. If they saw 'Inside Man' they'd see the freedom Grazer gave Spike with the subject and how he can make and succeed at delivering a Hollywood "joint".

  • other song | November 28, 2013 4:28 PMReply

    The original sucked anyway so I'm not surprised. In fact, I'm more interested to see this than rewatch the Korean original

  • Asian Lord | November 28, 2013 8:04 PM


  • DB | November 28, 2013 1:17 PMReply

    I know for a fact that the studio took the film away from Spike to re-edit it themselves. I'm acquaintances with someone whom works for the production company. So the failure of this film can't be blamed entirely on Spike, although we all know it will.

  • Mr. Marin | November 29, 2013 4:32 PM

    I can co-sign to that.

  • Miles Ellison | November 28, 2013 10:12 PM

    It may not be the intention of Hollywood to make movies bad, but that's often the result of the artistic choices that are made by people other than the director. Many good movies have been ruined that way.

  • John | November 28, 2013 2:26 PM

    Oh come on, you're acting like Hollywood want to make there own movie bad on purpose. Spike Lee "Red hook summer" was a bad movie and Hollywood wasn't apart of it. Maybe it just Spike?

  • Tom Haverford | November 28, 2013 1:03 PMReply

    "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."

    Lee has actually publicly complained that the studio interfered in this film, and especially in the editing of that scene. I have to wonder if it flows any better in the director's cut.

  • lance | November 28, 2013 12:50 PMReply

    Can't wait to see it, Spike is brillant and so is his work.

  • Da'Shade Moonbeam | November 28, 2013 12:40 PMReply

    I don't agree, I give it an A. I am a fight choreographer, and a super fan of the original Oldboy. I think Spike knew he had to create a film that would be fresh to those that covet the original and pay homage to it all in the same story line. I don't think it was a disappointment at all, and your review is spot on in numerous areas. I personally hoped he'd do exactly what he did, for if I wanted to see the original Oldboy, then I would watch the original. I'm glad he didn't just do a cookie cutter version of the original movie with american actors. I feel where you are coming from though, we just have differing opinions. Going to see it again today!

  • Da'Shade Moonbeam | November 29, 2013 2:21 AM

    SKA-TRIUMPH - I will let you know tomorrow, I am full of turkey at the moment.

  • Ska-triumph | November 28, 2013 4:53 PM

    I don't think anyone wish for Spike to make a cookie-cutter version at all. Like you said, he like every filmmaker before him had to balance the cult branding of the original (film not the source material which I assume was available to mine) and a newer version for today's audience.

    I can tell you that as a 21st-century thriller film, the twist was very obvious for the audience I saw it with. The pace didn't reflect the sharpness that I expect from Spike - in dialogue, in production design, in scene composition or construction. Nothing popped… even with studio manhandling, this was clearly a Spike Lee FILM not a JOINT.

    I'd be interested on what you see the second time around.

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