Review: Spike Lee's 'Oldboy' an Awkward Mess of New and Old Ideas
by Jeremy Kirk
November 27, 2013
When a remake of the South Korean film Oldboy was announced, it was a worst-nightmare scenario for fans. The thought that an American director would remake it for English-speaking audiences, shocking twists and all, was too much to handle. Those fears were subdued when Spike Lee signed on to direct. Lee isn't one of the best directors working today, but there's no denying the man has a very strong voice. Oldboy, through his eyes, was sure to be something exciting and fresh, regardless how many twists and/or turns carried over in the screenplay. Unfortunately, "exciting and fresh" turned into "hollow and awkward" somewhere along the way, and the Oldboy remake we're given ends up being an total mess. More below!
Without getting too involved in what is copied-and-pasted and what is actually different here, the basic premise stays the same. A husband and father, played here by Josh Brolin, is kidnapped and held captive for 20 years, his captors never revealing themselves nor ever giving him even a clue as to why he has been incarcerated. When he is released just as quickly as he was taken, the man sets a course for revenge, to find out who did this to him and deal with them permanently, and to make contact with a daughter who has never known him.
It's an interesting setup, one originally devised in the Japanese manga of the same name, and to see what can come of building on an interesting setup to craft an engaging story and expand on gripping ideas, one must only look at the original Oldboy adaptation. The same cannot be said for this remake. With a screenplay written by Mark Protosevich, this version of Oldboy plays like an empty retread, hitting far too many familiar beats to ever get you excited for anything new. The remake does take liberties, though, and their presence makes the rest of the been-there-done-that show all the more frustrating. Especially when those liberties are honest to God improvements, and, yes, that happens here, as well.
It isn't that this new version of Oldboy was created with those who hadn't seen the South Korean original in mind, either. Nods to the original are thrown in with haphazard regard, the kind of subtle references that only those experienced in the 2003 film would get. We do get them. We also roll our eyes at them. Even the famous "hammer fight" is included, this lift from the original film coming in as an afterthought, lazy in execution and jarring in the way it sets on. It is included here for the obvious reason that it's the most famous scene in the original. Why not half-ass your way through it, as well, Spike?
And that brings up the worst element to Oldboy, the very aspect that dredged up any excitement for this remake in the first place: Spike Lee's direction. A few of his trademarks pop up but only as if to say "Hey, remember Spike Lee directed this?" Save for the few and fleeting visual flares, the execution at work in Oldboy is dull and plodding at best. While the screenplay doesn't do the film's pacing any favors, it's in the casualness of the direction where Oldboy's momentum comes to a screeching halt. Lee's films - referred up until Oldboy, apparently, as "joints" - have never been items of enthusiasm, but the monotonous, neutral way in which this film is presented saps any level of fun this B-movie may have pulled off.
B-movie is a shield Spike Lee's Oldboy wears like a badge of honor, but it isn't something the film should be proud of. Park Chan-wook's original adaptation was a work of tragic beauty, the discomfort from the film vining its way around the audience like a tightening stretch of barbed wire. Instead, the remake's discomfort stems from goofy moments where Brolin steals a Chinese delivery man's bicycle or goes on a dumpling binge or just about anything and everything going on with Samuel L. Jackson's character.
Which brings us to the film's most colorful elements, the villains. While 80% of the world Spike Lee has crafted in which this story is set is nominally straight-forward, the more nefarious characters who inhabit it have decided to take the bat-shit approach. Jackson wears robes and a mohawk with equal parts strangeness, seemingly halfway back to the part he played in The Spirit - If you can remember that one. Sharlto Copley, though, as the mysterious antagonist to Brolin's avenger, is even still on another level entirely. He oozes villainous charm with all the bug-eyed, facial-haired, psychotic enthusiasm of a Hammer Horror creation. He, too, wears robes to prove his dynamic worth.
There's still much to commend Brolin on as well as Elizabeth Olsen as the girl who's drawn in to help him on his quest for vengeance, both absolutely solid in roles that seem boring by character comparison. And that's where this version of Oldboy ultimately stands - or slips and breaks its neck, whichever is more fitting - boring and familiar with too many lurches towards ingenuity to be forgotten and an abundance of sleazily handled violence. None of that, however, makes Spike Lee's take on Oldboy a good movie. Quite the contrary. It's a mess of ideas, new and old alike, and it goes to show that even with a strong voice behind it, a lazy, American remake is still just a lazy, American remake.
Jeremy's Rating: 3 out of 10
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