Oldboy (2013) – I have gone on record many times saying I am not against remakes. I do, like many people, bemoan the sheer quantity of them because Hollywood studios have become so risk-averse that they don’t want to take chances on anything that doesn’t have an established brand or other proven performance record… but I don’t typically hold that against the films themselves. Now… Oldboy has another issue… Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film Oldboy is one of my favorite movies. So right away, skepticism sets in. But then they announce that Spike Lee is directing it. Now not every Spike “joint” is a winner (I didn’t like Summer of Sam… and it was a movie with tits when I was 14 so it must have been doing something pretty wrong) but with a track record that includes Do the Right Thing, Malcom X, Clockers, Bamboozled, 25th Hour, and Inside Man, the man’s movie are always at the very least interesting. I start to think of it like cover songs. “Hurt” is a great Nine Inch Nails song but when Johnny Cash got ahold of it… holy shit. Now I didn’t expect Spike’s Oldboy to surpass Park’s, but it could be… interesting…
Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is an asshole. He’s a deadbeat dad. He hits on the wife (Hannah Ware) of a business associate (Lance Reddick) when the guy steps out to use the bathroom. He’s also a raging drunk. Then one day he gets grabbed and imprisoned in what looks like a hotel room with only the television to keep him company. His ex-wife has been raped and murdered and he is the police’s only suspect with mountains of evidence against him. After a few years, a true crime show on TV shows him that his daughter Mia (Elvy Yost) thinks that he is a murderer. He starts writing her letters he has no way of sending and training himself to be a better man and find out who has done this to him. After twenty years, he is unceremoniously set free. Now a mysterious man (Sharlto Copley) is telling him he has forty-eight hours to figure out why he imprisoned Joe for twenty years or he will kill Mia… but there’s a lot more to it than that.
First and foremost, to anyone wondering if an American movie studio would pussy out of the film’s notorious and disturbing twist: nope. If anything they double down and make the backstory behind it even more disturbing (but in a way that makes it a bit more thematically symmetrical). So there’s that. The ending ending (meaning what happens after the twist) is different, but better suited to the movie that Spike Lee made. As for everything before the ending… it’s pretty good. Josh Brolin is great in the lead. Sharlto Copley puts a very different and weird spin on his character that I went back and forth on while watching the movie. At least he was bold with his choices. Elizabeth Olsen, Michael Imperioli, and Samuel L. Jackson fill out the remaining major roles very well (with Jackson getting to use his favorite word A LOT). There’s a scene where Joe briefly looks at an octopus in a fish tank, but that’s it. It’s just a nod to the original but no cephalopods are harmed in this film. The epic hallways fight scene is still there. They even made it technically more complex but the whole thing feels a little too polished, as opposed to the raw brutality of the original. I have a very hard time evaluating this movie objectively. It’s pretty good, but I keep comparing it to the original in my mind. Beyond that, though, I get the feeling that if this was the version of Oldboy I saw first it would NOT be one of my favorite films. Park chan-wook just has such… precision to his film-making. Spike Lee is a great film-maker in his own right, but more so when doing his own films. Not riffing on someone else’s… which is not to say that he drops the ball in any way or anything like that. His Oldboy is good; it’s just not great. Check it out… after you’ve already seen the original.
If you’re bored and curious to see the fifty-plus tweets I made about this film when watching it July 13, it’s under the hashtag #OldboyUSA.