Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Mark Protosevich based on the manga by Garon Tsuchiya & Nobuaki Minegishi.
Starring: Josh Brolin (Joe Doucett), Elizabeth Olsen (Marie Sebastian), Sharlto Copley (Adrian / The Stranger), Samuel L. Jackson Samuel L. Jackson (Chaney), Michael Imperioli (Chucky), Pom Klementieff (Haeng-Bok), James Ransone (Dr. Tom Melby), Max Casella (James Prestley), Linda Emond (Edwina Burke), Elvis Nolasco (Cortez), Rami Malek (Browning), Lance Reddick (Daniel Newcombe), Hannah Ware (Donna Hawthorne), Richard Portnow (Bernie Sharkey), Hannah Simone (Stephanie Lee).
The best remakes are the ones that bring their own specific take on the material. When you watch Martin Scorsese’s The Departed for example, you do not really think about the excellent Hong Kong action film, Infernal Affairs, which it’s based on. It’s a Scorsese film through and through. A remake like the underrated Let Me In emphasizes different aspects of the story than the admittedly better Swedish original – Let the Right One In. This is something that Spike Lee’s Oldboy doesn’t really achieve. It’s clear that Lee loves Chan-wook Park’s original film – perhaps too much. The film is littered with references to the original film – in jokes that you’ll only really get if you’ve seen the original. Lee is also guilty of trying too hard to one up the original film. So I think it would help to see the original film before you see this remake – to know what Lee is building off of. And yet, Oldboy is also a film that relies heavily on the shocking twists the story takes to work as well as it does. Although I saw the original years ago – and loved it – I’ve avoided re-watching the film for that simple reason – I worried that now that I know the secrets of the film, it wouldn’t hold up nearly as well to multiple viewings. Besides, the original is so memorable, that it remains seared in my memory even now – nearly a decade after seeing it. Yet, despite all of the film’s flaws – and I’ve only scratched the surface of them in this opening paragraph – I have to say I still kind of liked Lee’s version.
The story is about Joe Douchette (Josh Brolin) – an ad executive, drunk and all around asshole. He’s the type of person who will tell his ex-wife that it doesn’t matter if he shows up to his 3-year old’s birthday party, because she won’t remember it anyway. One night he blows a key account – and he knows it will cost him his job. He goes on a bender through the streets of New York City – and then simply vanishes. He wakes up in a hotel room – but one that he cannot leave. His jailers don’t talk to him – do not tell him what is going on – and they feed him the same three meals every day – through a hole in the door, so he will not see them. He spends his time watching TV and getting drunk. He learns from the TV that his ex-wife has been murdered – and that he is the only suspect (the evidence against him is apparently airtight). He observes everything that happens outside through the TV – from 9/11 to Katrina to Obama being inaugurated. After seeing his daughter on TV, he becomes determined to escape, prove his innocence and mend his relationship with his daughter. Then, one day, after 20 years, he simply wakes up in a trunk in the middle of a field – his release is as unexplained as his imprisonment. He quickly meets Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) – a young woman who works with mentally ill people, who thinks Joe needs her help. He also reconnects with his old friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) to help him figure out who put him in that hotel for years – but they won’t stay hidden for long.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about Lee’s Oldboy is that he doesn’t soften the material from the original. When I first heard Hollywood was going to remake the film, I worried that any studio who was going to take on a remake would want to soften the material so much that any remake would be toothless or pointless. Lee doesn’t do that – this film is perhaps even more violent than the original, and although Lee does change some of the plot details and twists in the film he certainly did not do so for commercial reasons – you could even argue this film is an ever bigger downer than the original.
Lee also takes on the challenge of trying to up the ante on a film that was already ultra-stylistic in the first place. The most famous sequence in the original film is the long fight scene, done in one shot, on the main character fighting his way through a group of thugs with a hammer. The original scene took place in a hallway, seen from the side, as he does battle. Lee keeps the scene – but this time sets it on a two level parking garage – and is also done in one shot (or looks like it does – Lee does admit there is one cut in the scene – and he’s not happy about that). The original shot is still better – but I have to admire Lee for trying to do something even more complex. While it’s clear that this film is Lee as a director-for-hire, and unlike his last film in this vein, Inside Man (2006), I don’t think I can really say Lee leaves his fingerprints on it (he does have his trademark tracking shot – of course). But Lee does remain a gifted visual stylist – so while it may not be one of his most personal films, the film certainly looks great.
The performances are a mixed bag. Brolin is excellent as Douchette – who goes from despicable alcoholic and all around asshole, into a sympathetic, broken man trying to piece together his own life story. Brolin has that old school masculine energy that so few more modern actors can pull off – but were a staple in film noir of old. Samuel L. Jackson is very good as his sadistic jailer – and does add another horrible hair cut to his resume (I think he has an ongoing bet with Javier Bardem on who can do more movies with ridiculous hair styles). It’s a small role, but Jackson delivers. Elizabeth Olsen is undercut by the screenplay a little (or perhaps by the mandate to make the film shorter – apparently there is a three hour cut of the film out there). Without giving anything away, I will say that she plays a big role in the major twist in the film – the problem being it doesn’t feel like something her character would actually do – just something the screenwriter needs her to do. Then there’s Sharlto Copley. I have no idea what to make of his performance – he dons such a strange accent, that sounds like no one in history has every sounded – and his performance in mannered in the extreme. Yet it is certainly a distinctive performance – not one that you will easily forget.
Oldboy is not one of those remakes that takes everything special about the original and completely eliminates it, draining it of the reason to make the film in the first place. But it is not an remake that truly adds much to the original either – there really is no reason to see this film with the original still out there – unless you’re like me, and enjoy seeing different directors taking on the same story. Oldboy is clearly not nearly as good as the original film. Yet it’s not a boring, pointless film either. It exists somewhere in between. I’m glad I saw this film. It’s not great – I’m not even sure if it’s really good either. But it’s something different from Lee. He takes chances in his direction here – they may not all pay off, but I admire Lee’s efforts a great deal – even if, on this occasion, his reach outdid his grasp.